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She won a case challenging imprisonment of Japanese Americans. She still hasn’t gotten her Medal of Freedom.

She won a case challenging imprisonment of Japanese Americans. She still hasn’t gotten her Medal of Freedom.

In 1941 after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up and incarcerated Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. While World War II raged overseas, four American citizens individually challenged the constitutionality of the Japanese American incarceration. But the only person to win her Supreme Court case is the lone member without a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mitsuye Endo Tsutsumi is also the only woman of the four challengers to be excluded from the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Her posthumous nomination for the Presidential Medal of Freedom received a swell of support from community leaders who formed a nomination committee, wrote letters of support, and circulated a petition calling for Endo Tsutsumi to be honored.

On May 3, President Joe Biden presented 19 of the awards at a White House ceremony — Endo Tsutsumi was not among the honorees.

Wayne Tsutsumi felt disappointed by the news, but he holds out hope that his mother will get another opportunity to be honored at a future ceremony.

“Being nominated is an honor she deserves,” said Tsutsumi, 75. He thinks it would have been great to have his mom recognized during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Legal scholars credit Endo Tsutsumi’s landmark 1944 Supreme Court case with forcing the U.S. government to close the camps and release Japanese Americans from incarceration. Her case along with the legal challenges brought by Gordon Hirabayashi, Min Yasui and Fred Korematsu helped pave the road to the U.S. government’s apology and monetary compensation in 1988. Of the four legal cases, Endo Tsutsumi’s was the only successful one. But her legacy is lesser known.

“I think that’s acknowledged,” said Kathryn Bannai, 73, a member of Endo Tsutsumi’s Presidential Medal of Freedom committee, about her relative anonymity. “I think that it relates in two parts: the fact that she’s a woman [and] I think it relates in part to the fact that her case hasn’t been elevated.”

Endo takes on the U.S.

During World War II, Endo Tsutsumi and her family were forcibly removed from their Sacramento home and incarcerated at Tule Lake and then Topaz, two of the 10 main U.S.-run camps built to imprison Japanese Americans. She was a 22-year-old former Department of Motor Vehicles employee and a second-generation Japanese American who decided to challenge the WWII incarceration in court.

“I think about myself at that age,” said Peggy Nagae, a committee member. “Would I do that? Put my liberty and life and profession on the line? I’m not sure.”

The case, Ex parte Endo, took years to wend through the court system. During that time, the government offered Endo Tsutsumi early release from the Utah-based concentration camp, which she refused until her case was heard by the Supreme Court.

“She was willing to stay the course to seek justice for everybody,” said Nagae, 72.

On Dec. 18, 1944, the Supreme Court sided with Endo Tsutsumi.

“We are of the view that Mitsuye Endo should be given her liberty,” wrote Justice William O. Douglas in the unanimous decision.

On the same day it ruled in favor of her case, the Supreme Court ruled against Korematsu, who along with Hirabayashi and Yasui had been convicted of violating WWII military orders. The three men all lost their legal cases, which were later revisited and overturned in coram nobis cases (which are used to correct errors in court decisions) led by young Japanese American lawyers.

Nagae was the lead attorney on Yasui’s coram nobis case and Bannai was the lead counsel on Hirabayashi’s. Now they are co-leading the campaign to get Endo Tsutsumi a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“She’s deserving,” said Nagae. “She’s the only woman, and I think that’s significant.”

The Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizes civilians who have made “exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.”

Korematsu received his medal in 1998 while Hirabayashi and Yasui received their honors posthumously in 2012 and 2015, respectively.

Not just a legal case

Her name was on the court case, but Endo Tsutsumi rarely talked about it.

“Everybody says, ‘Well, your mom was quiet,’” said Tsutsumi. “I saw a side of my mother that a lot of other people didn’t see.”

After the war, she settled in Chicago with her husband, Kenneth Tsutsumi, raised three children, and worked on the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights. Like so many moms, said Tsutsumi, she was the glue that held the family together.

When she died in 2006, her unassuming obituary did not cite her historic case — just a list of beloved family members. She was 85.

In the 1999 book, “And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps,” Endo Tsutsumi said the decision to take part in her legal case “was awfully hard for me, but I agreed to do it at that moment, because they said it’s for the good of everybody, and so I said, well if that’s it, I’ll go ahead and do it.”

Endo Tsutsumi was first nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Although the White House has not made an official announcement, committee members are hopeful for another ceremony.

The process for getting a Presidential Medal of Freedom changes with each president. The White House did not respond to requests for comment on Endo Tsutsumi’s nomination or the possibility of another medal ceremony.

Tsutsumi thinks his mom would be humbled by the support.

“I think my mom would just be glad that she was able to persevere and see her case to the successful ending,” said Tsutsumi. “I think that was the reward for her.”

Lynda Lin Grigsby

Lynda Lin Grigsby is a freelance journalist and editor who writes about the intersections of race, identity and parenting.  

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