WASHINGTON — Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) sent a letter to President Obama on Monday urging him to posthumously bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mitsuye Endo (1920-2006).
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor of the United States.
“Awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mitsuye Endo would provide long-overdue recognition of the courage and sacrifice of a civil rights heroine whose low-key demeanor belied her steadfast pursuit of justice during World War II,” Schatz wrote.
“Like thousands of Japanese Americans, Ms. Endo was interned for no other reason than her ancestry. She was an American citizen, she spoke only English and no Japanese, she served as a state government employee, and she had a brother serving in the U.S. Army.
“Still, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Ms. Endo was fired from her job, and she and her family were forcibly removed from their home in Sacramento and sent to internment sites — first the Tule Lake War Relocation Camp in California and later to the Topaz War Relocation Camp in Utah. She spent three years living behind barbed wire.
“Four Japanese Americans challenged the legality of their relocation and internment all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mitsuye Endo was the only woman among them and the only named plaintiff to win a case.
“While her case proceeded, Ms. Endo rejected an offer from the government to release her as long as she agreed not to return to the West Coast. Instead, she chose to remain incarcerated to allow her case to continue through the court system.”
In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in Endo’s favor, stating in part: “A citizen who is concededly loyal presents no problem of espionage or sabotage. Loyalty is a matter of the heart and mind, not of race, creed, or color. He who is loyal is by definition not a spy or a saboteur.
“When the power to detain is derived from the power to protect the war effort against espionage and sabotage, detention which has no relationship to the objective is unauthorized…”
The Roosevelt Administration, alerted in advance of the decision, pre-empted the release of the court’s opinion and rescinded Executive Order 9066 on Dec. 17, 1944 — the day before the Endo ruling was handed down. The internment camps were closed and Japanese Americans began to be freed two weeks later on Jan. 2, 1945.
While the court ruled that the government could not continue to detain a loyal American citizen, the Endo decision did not address the constitutionality of the internment itself; in the cases of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, the court upheld the government’s argument of military necessity.
“Ms. Endo was an ordinary person who made the extraordinary choice to forgo her own freedom in order to secure the rights of 120,000 Japanese Americans who were wrongfully imprisoned without the benefit of due process,” Schatz wrote. “Her story exemplifies a core American principle; we are a nation of laws where one person can stand up against an injustice and alter the course of our democracy.”
“The Japanese American Citizens League is honored to support her nomination for a Presidential Medal of Freedom,” said Priscilla Ouchida, JACL national executive director. “Mitsuye Endo was not a person that one would have picked out of the crowd, but she had the courage, tenacity, and moral strength to challenge the federal government on behalf of an entire community. After the war, she lived out her life as a wife and mother near Chicago, Ill.
“Historically, the contributions of women like Endo are forgotten or minimized. Mitsuye Endo is a true American hero, who in her quiet way, sacrificed so much in order to free 120,000 men, women and children.”
“As a coalition of more than 30 organizations that represent Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, NCAPA fully supports Mitsuye Endo’s nomination for the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” said Mini Timmaraju, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans. “We admire Mitsuye Endo’s extraordinary courage and sacrifice to secure the rights of all Japanese Americans during a time the U.S. government failed to protect the rights of all American citizens. Mitsuye Endo fully deserves to be posthumously awarded the highest civilian honor in the United States.”
“Mitsuye Endo demonstrated profound courage and perseverance in the face of overt racism and paranoia inflicted upon her by her own country,” said Jacce Mikulanec, president of the JACL’s Honolulu Chapter. “She not only represents the 120,000 other Americans of Japanese ancestry who suffered the same fate, but all Americans who are wrongly persecuted but continue to believe in our American way of life and our justice system.
“JACL-Honolulu Chapter strongly supports the nomination of Mitsuye Endo for the Presidential Medal of Freedom and thanks Sen. Brian Schatz for his dedicated work toward this effort.”
Korematsu was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998. Hirabayashi received the honor posthumously from President Obama in 2012. Efforts are currently under way to have the medal presented posthumously to Yasui as well.