With kind permission of Gil Asakawa
You’d think in the 21st century, that racial epithet would be so old-fashioned that anyone using them would be laughed out of the country. But no, that’s not the case. At issue today, as it has been for decades, is the use of the word “Jap” to describe a person or thing that’s Japanese or Japanese American. Amazingly, there have been a couple of instances of “Jap” in the media in recent weeks.
First, there was Dallas Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells’ use of the word to describe football plays. I’m not sure if that’s a common term for plays throughout the NFL, but Parcells knew when he said it during a press conference that the word was loaded with negative connotations.
He thought enough to preface it by saying “No disrespect to the Orientals,” and went on to say that one of his assistant coaches was coming up with “a few what we call “Jap’ plays, OK, surprise things.”
I wonder who “we” are. The coaching staff? The team? The conference? The entire league? I understand the point Parcells was trying to make with the comment – it’s an obvious reference to the Japanese “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor that brought the U.S. into World War II.
At the time, the word “Jap” was commonplace – and it wasn’t a term of endearment. One online encyclopedia defines the word this way: “Jap is a slang term with a strongly negative connotation, a term used and proliferated by the US government during WWII to express hostility.”
That’s certainly how I’ve heard it when it’s been spit out in my direction by ignorant, bigoted fools. I know that “Jap” is a term that reeks of disrespect; a person doesn’t use it without hatred behind it.
Or do they? Just because it’s been an epithet towards me, does it have to be a slur whenever it’s used?
“Jap” at its simplest is just an abbreviation of “Japan” or “Japanese.” It was first used by Westerners a few years after Commodore Matthew C. Perry forced Japan to open to international trade at gunpoint 150 years ago. In 1860, when “Jap” was first used in America to describe the samurai and servants who were sent from Japan as part of the first U.S. diplomatic mission, the term was used merely for its brevity and convenience. There was no hatred or distrust of Japanese at the time, although the Chinese by then were already suffering all sorts of prejudice as immigrants to a mostly Caucasian country.
The Chinese were banned, and Japanese immigrants were welcomed in the mid-1880s as a better-behaved, more civilised form of cheap labour. It wasn’t until later that Japanese themselves bore the brunt of blunt racism during the “Yellow Peril” scare of the early 1900s, with alien land laws preventing them from owning property, and attacks by white labourers.
By the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the term “Jap” carried a certain kind of venom in much of America. It’s not to say that every person who uttered it, or every newspaper that put it in headlines (let’s face it, “Jap” fit much better in headlines than “Japanese”) was racist. But it would be naive to think that the word was innocent.
During the war, “Jap” was painted with the blood of brutality – unfortunately committed by the Japanese themselves – and became an easy way to vent hate and anger at both Japanese and the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps.
The word hasn’t been used casually since except as an abbreviation by ignorant and uneducated people on eBay, and curiously, by the Japanese themselves, most of whom have never suffered the sting of the word directly. A quick search of Japanese Web sites calls up such interesting URLs as “Jap-in-the-box,” “Jap-o-Lantern” and “Jap.com.” And a recent survey in Japan found that most Japanese didn’t care about the word either way.
So why are Japanese Americans raising such a ruckus about it, especially if, as Parcells disingenuously suggested, he meant “no disrespect?” Because decades – hell, a century – of use has meant nothing but disrespect. “Jap” is making another ruckus in Texas this year: A four-mile stretch of pavement outside of Beaumont, Texas, that’s been called “Jap Road” for almost a century is under scrutiny, and critics led by a Japanese American woman and backed by civil rights groups including the Japanese American Citizens League are trying to get the name changed.
The 100 or so people who live along the road say that they’re not racist – that’s probably true – and that the road was named after a Japanese farmer who settled there in 1905. That’s probably true too. But what the backers of “Jap Road” don’t seem to get is that time change, and that what was appropriate a century ago may not be appropriate today.
One irate resident wrote in the local paper, “I hear ‘Jap’ cars and ‘Jap’ bikes all the time, why not ‘Jap Road?'” Uh, because “Jap cars” and “Jap bikes” are pretty damned bad too.
Yes, it’s a matter of political correctness. And yes, things have changed.
It’s possible these people think nothing of calling things “Nigger-this” and “Spic-that.” And they’d be wrong with that too. If they don’t say such things using other racial epithets, they need to look carefully at their use of “Jap.” It’s not just to abbreviate the word, or they’d be happy calling it “Japanese Road.” They call it Jap because that’s an old word that was used to describe Japanese. We don’t use that word anymore, folks.
We just don’t.
The discussion over the word has highlighted a divide even among Japanese Americans. Yes, not all Japanese Americans think alike, and some think we’re being too sensitive by fighting over such words. I applaud their right to an opinion and even understand it. People accuse me of having thin skin when I flinch at a racial joke or get pissed off at Abercrombie & Fitch for printing racist t-shirts. I even convinced a Texas grocery store chain a few years ago to stop using the word “Jap” to describe a Japanese pepper they sold.
I’m not going to criticise someone who disagrees with me. But I urge anyone who thinks it’s OK to use the word “Jap” for a road (or many other stores and places in the U.S., or “Chink” for a mountain, a name from the 1880s that was finally changed in 2001 thanks to the efforts of a Japanese American woman in Pocatello, Idaho).
I don’t think the folks who live along Jap Road are racist. But we wouldn’t allow such names if they used other racial epithets, and it’s past the time to allow the use of “Jap” for that stretch of tarmac under the hot Texas sun.
Update, 21 July 2004: Thanks to the combined efforts of individuals, community and civil rights organisations across the country, as well as a grassroots petition drive sent around the Internet, the Jefferson County Commissioners this week voted to change the name of “Jap Road.” A historical marker will be put up in tribute of the road’s original name and the rice farmer who inspired it.
It’s nice to see that things can change, even after a century of acceptance when enough people care enough to want the change.