I’m sure more than one set of eyes rolled when the news broke that the state of Kansas recalled some 731 license plates with the letters “JAP” on them. Apparently, one of the vehicle tags was spotted in California, and a gentleman there wrote our governor, the Kansas Department of Revenue and the U.S. Department of Transportation to express that he was offended by the combination.
In October, two months after additional letters and emails were sent, the state mailed the vehicle owners, offering a free plate exchange. If they do not participate, new plates will automatically be issued when they apply for a renewal.
I must admit that just for a moment I too wondered whether this was an example of taking political correctness too far. After all, the plates are randomly generated, so no one requested the three letters. But, upon further review, I came to a different conclusion.
The man who made the initial request, Keith Kawamoto, is a third-generation Japanese American, who describes himself as easy going, according to a New York Times article. “But one thing that sets me off,” he said, “is the J word.” His parents were among the 117,000 people of Japanese descent who were declared enemy aliens by the U.S. government and forced into internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The word “Jap” was frequently used to taunt him with hate and bigotry during his childhood.
So, it didn’t take me long to rethink my initial position and come to the conclusion that our state administrators did the right thing in recalling the plates. Car tag recalls are not unprecedented, according to the Times article, though they are somewhat uncommon. Obviously, obscenities, ethnic slurs and drug and sexual references are blacklisted. In the 1980s, New Brunswick, Canada, nearly issued hundreds of tags with the three-letter word for a backside on them. They were discovered before they were mailed.
I have no idea how much this plate exchange cost the taxpayers of Kansas. But, I am fairly sure it’s not going to break the budget. At any rate, it’s a small inconvenience to correct a situation that is fairly easily fixed. I would in no way want to minimize the authenticity of Mr. Kawamoto’s claim that he was offended by the plate he saw.
I have tried to come up with even one racial or ethnic slur that would be offensive to a middle-aged white guy like me. Even if I allowed an extension beyond the three letters found on tags, I have not been able to think of anything. I have a relative that once returned a plate with the numbers “666” on it. But, my favorite license plate story is about the Canadian Mennonite woman who snagged the plate HYM 606. While she knew that number represents the long-time page number for the Mennonite National Anthem, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” the motor vehicle office worker had no idea why the driver was so excited to get the tag.