Kansas stops issuing license plates with offensive term for Japanese

CREATING CHANGE — Keith Kawamoto, a member of the Venice-West Los Angeles chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, complained about a Kansas license plate he spotted in Culver City, Calif. with a racial slur on it.
photo courtesy of Keith Kawamoto

LOS ANGELES — The Kansas Department of Revenue has ceased issuing vehicle license plates that contain the letters “JAP” after a Californian man complained about a plate carrying the word, which was popularized as a derogatory term for Japanese during and after World War II.

“The Division of Vehicles is restricting the use of ‘J A P’ in future license plates,” the department said in a statement. “Vehicle owners with that combination received a letter in the middle of October requesting an exchange of plates at no cost to them.”

“We take these types of complaints very seriously and appreciate that it was brought to our attention.”

According to the Associated Press, 731 license plates have been recalled in Kansas.

“(The Japanese American Citizens League) is pleased with Kansas’ determination that racial slurs should not appear on their license plates,” David Inoue, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, said in a statement to Kyodo News. “It is unfortunate that so many people fail to recognize the pain that this and many other slurs can inflict upon those targeted.”

In 2017, Los Angeles resident and local JACL chapter member Keith Kawamoto, 70, took a photo of a car with the Kansas-issued license plate “442 JAP.” After letters to Kansas state officials resulted in an apology from a representative of the Kansas Department of Revenue, another JACL member in Kansas took up the cause to prevent the combination of letters from being generated.

“I am very pleased to hear that the state of Kansas has agreed to recall all of the series of license plates containing that racial slur,” Kawamoto told Kyodo News via e-mail. “I did this for all of us! I did it for our parents and their parents, I did it for our children and their children, for all future generations.”

According to the JACL’s publication, the Pacific Citizen, California eradicated license plates with those letters in 1997 after a Japanese American man sued a couple who refused to change their vanity license plate that contained the wife’s initials, “JAP.”

“This phrase is not issued in California license plates,” Artemio Armenta of the California Department of Motor Vehicles told Kyodo News. Armenta said he did not know when the DMV stopped issuing plates with “the offensive configuration.”

“California state law allows the DMV to refuse any configuration that may carry certain connotations. Clearly, this phrase is an insulting and degrading term and falls under the category of also being a racially or ethnically degrading term.”

Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, backed such moves.

“Offensive language has the power to inflict pain even when it is unintentional,” she said. “It’s heartening to know that officials in Kansas took a complaint seriously and have acted to rectify an unfortunate situation.”

Inoue said the JACL will research whether other U.S. states allow the configuration on license plates.

“There is still much work to be done in eradicating the use of slurs from our language,” said Inoue.

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