National News

Kansas Recalls License Plates Offensive to Japanese-Americans

Posted November 30, 2018 5:29 p.m. EST

Ever since the first laws requiring license plates were approved in the early 1900s, states have been vigilant over what they say.

Most, if not all, states keep a blacklist of words or acronyms that may embarrass or offend other motorists, like ASS, XXX or WTF. Mostly, these lists apply to vanity plate requests. But occasionally, the computers assigning the identification numbers are to blame.

In October, Kansas recalled 731 license plates with the letter combination JAP, after a group of Japanese-Americans pushed to remove them from the road.

The drive originated in California more than a year ago when Keith Kawamoto, a retired refinery mechanic, spotted a gray Nissan sedan from Kansas tagged “442 JAP” while sputtering in stop-and-go traffic in Culver City, California, where he lives.

In a telephone interview this week, Kawamoto described himself as “easygoing.”

“But one thing that sets me off,” he said, “is the J word.”

Kawamoto is a third-generation Japanese-American whose parents were among 117,000 people of Japanese descent declared enemy aliens by the U.S. government and forced into internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The word “Jap” was used frequently to taunt Japanese-Americans with hate and bigotry in his childhood.

The license plate on the Nissan sedan was not a vanity plate, nor were the 730 others bearing the same three letters. They were generated by the state, which uses three letters and three numbers, ordered sequentially, to identify vehicles.

While license plate recalls are not unprecedented for state-issued plates, they are not common.

Rick Kretschmer, a license plate aficionado who runs a historical information site, said every state had a list of banned words, which include obscene words, ethnic slurs, and drug or sexual references.

“People request them all the time to see what they can get away with,” he said.

This requires censors for the departments of motor vehicles to hold up a word in the mirror, and to stay on top of current slang and slurs.

Around 2008, North Carolina offered to exchange plates with the letters “WTF” after a driver’s grandchildren noted that the acronym was used as an expletive. “XXX” was also recalled after it was assigned to a youth pastor’s vehicle.

New Brunswick, Canada, made hundreds of “ASS” plates in the 1980s, but discovered the mistake before issuing them.

And in the 1990s, California recalled plates with any combination of “dago” and “wop,” terms that stung some in the Italian-American community, but were a source of pride for some. In Kawamoto’s case, the letters “JAP” juxtaposed with the numbers “442” made the slight more painful because of his volunteer work for an organization supporting the legacy of Japanese-American veterans who fought on the European front lines during World War II.

The organization, Go for Broke, is named for the motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit made up almost entirely of Japanese-Americans that became among the most decorated in U.S. military history.

Kawamoto called, emailed and wrote letters to officials at the Kansas Department of Revenue, which issues license plates; the Kansas governor, Jeff Colyer; and the U.S. Department of Transportation, urging them to remove the plates from circulation.

But it wasn’t until September, when the Japanese American Citizens League ran an article about Kawamoto in its newspaper, Pacific Citizen, that there was any action.

Barbara Johnson, a Kansas resident and member of a Japanese American Citizens League chapter in Omaha, Nebraska, who has painful memories of anti-Japanese sentiment growing up in the late 1950s, was moved when she read it.

Reached by phone Thursday, Johnson said the current climate of racial tension and religious intolerance spurred her and her husband, Rick, to meet with interest groups and write letters urging state officials to pull the plates.

“I’m not usually outspoken,” Johnson said, “but I felt the need to join this effort.”

In October, less than two months after connecting with Kawamoto, Johnson received a call from the Department of Revenue that the plates would be recalled and the letter combination would be retired. Johnson said she was stunned and tearful.

“I’m sorry for the people who have to go through the trouble of returning the license plates,” she said.

In October, the state sent letters to vehicle owners offering a free plate exchange. If they do not participate, new plates will automatically be issued when they apply for a renewal.

“We take these types of complaints very seriously and appreciate that it was brought to our attention,” said Rachel Whitten, a department spokeswoman.

It was extraordinary that Kawamoto spotted a license plate with that sequence of letters and numbers more than 1,000 miles from where it had been issued.

Kawamoto said he did this for his parents, his children and future generations.

“This derogatory racial slur doesn’t have a place anywhere,” he said.