Petition to honor Mitsuye Endo and her historic Supreme Court victory

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

OAKLAND, Calif. – A campaign is underway to honor a California woman who sacrificed years of her life to fight for Americans’ constitutional rights, and ended up winning a landmark case in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mitsuye Endo was a young woman born in Sacramento, who was a typist at the California DMV when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

She was 21 years old. 

And it was what she did in those following years, challenging the U.S. government in court, that now has prominent attorneys, community groups, and legal scholars circulating a petition that calls for her to be awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“I am very proud of my mother for all she did. And she did it for herself and her family and all the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated,” Mitsuye Endo’s son, Wayne Tsutsumi said, in an interview from his home in Chicago.

Tsutsumi says his mother was strong, but quiet. She didn’t tell him or her other two children about her historic actions until they were adults.

“Mom did not speak about it, nor did my dad,” said Tsutsumi, who said his parents met while incarcerated at the Topaz camp in Utah.

San Francisco attorney Dale Minami is a member of the Endo Presidential Medal of Freedom Committee, which launched the petition.

Minami is working with attorneys Kathryn Bannai and Peggy Nagae. All three lawyers famously led legal teams for other American citizens, Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Min Yasui, who challenged the government’s incarceration orders.

Endo, Korematsu, HIrabayashi, and Yasui were among some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast who were forced into what U.S. officials called concentration camps in 1942, under the U.S. government’s Executive Order 9066.

“They didn’t get a trial. They didn’t have the right to an attorney, notice of charges. They were stripped of all their constitutional rights,” Minami said.

UC Berkeley School of Law professor Amanda Tyler says she never learned about Endo’s Supreme Court case until Tyler was doing research for her book on habeas corpus.

“I think she is a remarkable American historical figure that has been grossly underappreciated for all that she did to push the government to honor the Constitution,” Tyler said.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, Endo was fired from the California DMV, along with hundreds of other Japanese Americans.

Endo agreed to work with attorney James Purcell and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) to file a habeas corpus lawsuit, challenging the incarceration order.

“She said, well, in that case I will do it, because it’s not just for myself and my family, but for all the Japanese Americans who were unlawfully incarcerated,” Tsutsumi said, who added that Purcell told her that she would be the best case for the challenge.

Her case caused concern among government attorneys.

“They knew it was unconstitutional and there are a lot of internal documents and correspondence, including correspondence that goes directly to the President saying that they know this is unconstitutional. And so they offered Endo release,” Tyler said.

Endo had been incarcerated at the Tule Lake and Topaz concentration camps.

“She thought about it and she said no, I’m not going to drop my case. You’re going to have to rule on the issue of an imprisonment of a concededly loyal American citizen who has never been to Japan, doesn’t speak Japanese, is Christian, has a brother in the military service and was as American as anyone else,” Minami said.

Endo’s decision, however, would come at the cost of her own freedom.

“She wound up staying almost two extra years in the camps, because she knew if she left the case would go away,” Tyler said.

On December 18, 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Endo, on the same day it famously ruled against another plaintiff, Fred Korematsu.

Endo’s victory forced the White House to announce that the camps would be closed.

Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Min Yasui, who also filed cases against the government, each ended up receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their legal challenges.

“She showed the same kind of courage that Fred and Gordon and Min did, she didn’t get this recognition,” Minami said.

Endo died in 2006.

In 2015, the JACL launched a campaign to see Endo honored posthumously, and renewed the call this year with a letter by JACL Executive Director David Inoue to President Biden.

December 2024 will mark the 80th anniversary of Endo’s landmark Supreme Court victory, and JACL is joining the efforts to support the Endo Presidential Medal of Freedom Committee petition.

“I loved her very much and…I’m very proud,” Tsutsumi said, remembering his late mother and her strength.

“I think every American should know her story,” Tyler said. “I think it is a story of an American pushing a government to honor the promises made in the Constitution.”

Thousands have signed the Presidential Medal of Freedom petition and hope her legacy will finally be honored.

If you’re interested in signing the petition, click here.  

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU. Email Jana at or call her at 510-326-5529. Or follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.