Keith Kawamoto spotted this Kansas license plate last year while driving in Culver City.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The State of Kansas has announced that it is recalling all license plates with the letter sequence “JAP.”

The state’s Department of Revenue, Division of Vehicles, sent a letter on Nov. 27 announcing the decision to 731 motorists whose license plates have the inadvertent slur. They were asked to return their plates within 30 days for replacement at no cost; otherwise, the change will be made when they renew their registration.

According to Rachel Whitten, a spokeswoman for the department, the system will be restricted from using those letters together in the future. “We take these types of complaints very seriously and appreciate that it was brought to our attention,” she said in a statement.

However, this story began more than a year ago, on Oct. 4, 2017, when Keith Kawamoto of Culver City, a retired refinery mechanic, was driving near his home and spotted a Nissan Versa with a Kansas license plate reading “442 JAP.” He took a photo and posted it online.

Keith Kawamoto

Although it later turned out to be a computer-generated combination of letters and numbers, not a derogatory reference to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Kawamoto found the plate very disturbing. He is a Sansei whose parents were incarcerated at Heart Mountain in Wyoming during World War II and is a member of Sadao Munemori Post 321, named for the first Nisei soldier to receive the Medal of Honor, and the Venice-West Los Angeles JACL.

He contacted the appropriate government offices in Kansas and initially got no response. Feeling that he was “getting nowhere,” he sent an email directly to the governor, Jeff Colyer.

Eventually, Kawamoto received a letter of apology. “I was pretty pleased about this — at least I got a response,” he said. “But I wanted it to go further, get the plate recalled.”

Since the plate he saw was not personalized but standard issue, he knew there could be hundreds with that combination of letters.

“How do you deal with bureaucracy? I did what I thought was the right thing to do, gave them 30 days to reply, saying I appreciate the letter but want them to carry it further,” Kawamoto recalled. “…They totally ignored me. So at that point I didn’t know what to do. I gave them an ultimatum and they ignored me.”

He suspected that the fact he was not a constituent may have been a factor, but he also saw a double standard. “If it was the N-word, do you think it would be ignored? Everybody needs to be treated with the same respect.”

“I told the State of Kansas that no other state in the union would allow this,” Kawamoto added. “I believe this is true. Every state has a clause that prohibits the use of any derogatory, offensive term, profanity, etc. For whatever reason, this slipped through in Kansas …

“They won’t admit this, but I think they thought, ‘Okay, we’ll send him a letter and he’ll be quiet.’ They were obviously aware that it was a racial slur. They should have known before.”

Kawamoto also contacted the U.S. Department of Transportation. He told an official there that it was a federal issue, as a vehicle with the offensive letters could travel to other states — as was the case when he saw the Nissan in California.

“The federal government got involved and they contacted the State of Kansas. The State of Kansas found out they were going to be the subject of a federal investigation,” said Kawamoto, who speculated that this may have nudged the state in the right direction.

He got some help when Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League, published an article about the issue. This in turn led to the involvement of Barbara Johnson, a Japanese American who lives in Abilene with her husband Rick.

Kawamoto noted that the closest JACL chapter is in Omaha and there are only four JACL members in all of Kansas, including Johnson (whose maiden name is Kimitsuka) and her husband.

In a letter asking Colyer to take action, Johnson noted that her retired husband had a medical practice in Abilene; that she, her husband and their three children are graduates of Kansas State University and life members of the KSU Alumni Association; and that she and her husband are former trustees of the KSU Foundation and current members of the Abilene-Omitama Sister City Board.

At this point, Kawamoto suggested, “they threw up their hands and said, ‘Forget it, we’re going to recall the plates.’”

Barbara and Rick Johnson of Abilene, Kansas.

Johnson said in a Facebook post, “Rick and I and Keith Kawamoto … are pleased with the outcome! We are referring to plates with the three-letter combination ‘JAP,’ which is a derogatory term to Japanese. We are thankful that the State of Kansas, specifically David Harper of the Dept. of Vehicles, is responding to our (Japanese Americans) concerns.

“I apologize to the holders of these plates to cause any inconvenience. I hope they can understand our feelings. With the current situation in this country as we hear in the news on a daily basis, we felt it was important to make the public aware.

“Keith Kawamoto started the pursuit, I joined, then Rick, then Nina Hayes with the Omaha Chapter of the JACL. Causes like this takes commitment. We willingly offer to others who encounter this in other states or other situations, our help.”

Johnson was born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a Japanese American father from Hawaii who was serving with the U.S. Army in Japan, and grew up at Fort Ord on the Monterey Peninsula. Her parents were not in camp but she has an uncle who served with the 100th/442nd.

In an interview with the Associated Press, she said the slur reminded her of her childhood. “It was not a good time to be Japanese because of Pearl Harbor and World War II. I recall vividly as a child being called ‘Jap’ — and how it made me feel so small and hurt by being called that.”

“The Omaha Chapter was ready to take immediate and direct action, but I received the phone call the morning after we attended the chapter meeting on Oct. 29 to discuss strategies going forward,” Johnson recalled. “Our daughter, Nina Hayes, DVM, is co-VP of membership, and we firmly believe that she, Kai Uno, president, and Sharon Ishii-Jordan, co-VP of membership (also retired associate professor of education and associate dean of arts and sciences at Creighton University), and all other members had plans in motion, and would have taken any steps necessary to complete this mission.”

The Oct. 30 phone call was from Lee Ann Phelps, vehicle services manager of the Division of Vehicles, on behalf of Harper, director of the Division of Property Valuation and Division of Vehicles.

“She informed me that Mr. Harper had made the decision to recall the license plate containing the three-letter combination … and restrict the issuance of any plates with that combination,” Johnson said. “I told her about my experiences as a child, to which she seemed very empathetic and understanding. She expressed appreciation for bringing this to their attention.”

After the decision made the news, Johnson and her husband “have had positive but many negative responses. There are some out there who are very narrow-minded, to put it nicely. Rick and I, and everyone we approached, are very happy with the outcome.”

Her takeaway from this incident: “It is never too late for educating and awareness. Problems will not be resolved unless we are willing to step forward and take action. Empty words are just that, empty. We cannot sit back and let someone else do the work, hoping for change to take place.

“In the grand scheme of things, there are many more serious issues relating to, for example, racial (Black Lives Matter, DACA), religious (anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic), and social (gender, LGBTQ, disabled) injustices that will take education, much organized effort and time to resolve.”

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