We’re making great headway in the United States in getting public names changed when they are reflections of an older era when racially charged terms were considered acceptable, or at least, not controversial.
End of the Road: This rural road in Orange County, Texas, will be getting a new name.
In the past few months, for instance, Japanese American community groups including the Japanese American Citizens League (full disclosure: I’m the editorial board chair for the JACL’s membership newspaper, the Pacific Citizen) have managed to change the name of a couple of byways from “Jap Road” to more appropriate names that honor the Japanese immigrants who settled near those roads.
To be fair, it might not be out of prejudice that “Jap” has been used in the past. It is, after all, the most obvious abbreviation for “Japan.” But even that’s changing.
Earlier this year, AT&T wireless apologized for running a nationwide ad for its international calling rates that used “JAP” for Japan. It pulled the ad from newspapers, replaced the abbreviation with “JPN” and made a donation to the JACL for its error.
And when it was pointed out, CNN and the Chicago Tribune changed their abbreviation for Japan during their Olympics coverage.
The work’s not done: The abbreviation “JAP” shows up often on the online auction site eBay even though the company recently updated its policy towards racially offensive terms to bar the use of words such as “Jap” and “nigger” in descriptions even if the words are part of the name of the item for sale. eBay says that, “sellers must ensure that the language in their listings shows appropriate sensitivity to those in the community that might view it.”
And, the state of Florida is still rife with businesses that for some reason continue to use the word “Jap” in their name to describe the Japanese autos and products they service or sell.
Critics complain that this is all the result of pesky political correctness; those of us who feel a pit in our stomach when we see “Jap” in any context think it’s the right thing to do. Values have evolved, and there’s no reason for us to accept those vestiges of an earlier, more racially divided time.
Unfortunately, this discussion of changing values doesn’t quite translate to the Japanese themselves, or at least, not to all of them.
I received a distressing e-mail from a JACL member who contacted a Japanese-run Web site for scuba diving news, Cyber Diver News Network, or CDNN (http://www.cdnn.info).
She saw that the Web site’s news headlines used “JAP” as an abbreviation for Japan, and sent an irate e-mail to the editor.
Satoru “Stanford” Suzuki, the editor-in-chief, responded testily back, and then followed up with a quite nasty message:
“Don’t be stupid. You are not Japanese. You are American. So don’t lecture me about what it means to be Japanese and how I should react to the word ‘Jap’. Modern Japanese don’t care about WWII and do not associate the word with racism and war attrocities (sic) such as the Nanking Massacre, which makes your little historical anecdote about American internment camps sound like a Sunday picnic.
“For we Japanese, it’s just a short form of ‘Japan’ and ‘Japanese’ equivalent to ‘Brit’. If that’s a problem for you, if you want to live in the past, if you want to cultivate some kind of a victim complex, if you want to get overly excited about a mere word, regardless of how it’s actually used in 2004, we Japanese don’t care. The war has been over for 60 years and we Japanese have moved on. “
After giving some examples of other Asian and Filipino Web sites that also us “Jap” in headlines, Suzuki finished up sarcastically:
“For my part, the discussion is closed. I’ve got better things to do than entertain a dumb retro-Yank on a bad Jap trip.
“Peace and love from a modern Jap journalist in modern Japan.”
I trust that Suzuki doesn’t speak for all Japanese – I’d love to know what the foreign ministry would think of such invective, because the Japanese government has been making a concerted effort to outreach to Japanese Americans.
It’s true that the changing cultural values of the U.S. haven’t necessarily reached all parts of the world; nor, perhaps, should they. But I’d submit that even Japanese who disagree could do so with a little less hatred and a little more grace.
After all, nothing’s ever going to change without a discussion across cultures.