Photo of Kansas license

Keith Kawamoto holds a smartphone displaying his photo of the car he saw in Culver City, Calif., with Kansas plates reading 442 JAP.

When the state of Kansas issued a license plate with the random number 442 JAP to a driver in Sedgwick County, it didn’t have any special meaning to it.

When Keith Kawamoto saw the car on a street near his home in Culver City, California, it had so much meaning that he took a photo of the plate and wrote to Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer.

Kawamoto got a thank-you-for-letting-us-know-we’ll-look-into-it-and-get-back-to-you letter from the state’s motor vehicles division.

He took the story to Pacific Citizen, the national newsletter of the Japanese American Citizens League, where Barbara and Rick Johnson of Abilene saw it in September.

Barbara said she is usually easygoing, even complacent, but the number 442 JAP on a Kansas license plate incensed her and she thought that, as constituents of Kansas, they might have better luck in convincing the state to get these license plates off the road.

“Jap is a very derogatory and hurtful word to Japanese Americans,” Barbara said. “As hurtful as the “N” word is to African Americans.”

To see that on a Kansas license brought back memories of all the times she had been called that and other ethnic slurs as a child.

“There were lots of terms to make me feel bad about being Japanese,” she said.

People even drove by the house yelling “Jap!”, she said.

That wasn’t in Abilene, but there have been comments made even here, she said.

“It made me feel really hurt as a child,” she said. “I just want to make people aware.

“Reading the article brought all that emotion back.”

Barbara was born in 1951, just six years after World War II ended, and thinking of the Japanese as enemies was a lingering effect of the war, she said.

Her father who was in the U.S. Army wanted the family to be assimilated into American culture, so she lost the language and culture of Japan, which she wishes she had now.

“People don’t understand,” Barbara said. “I felt like I needed to take action” although she described herself as usually “easygoing and complacent.”

“We didn’t limit our response to JAP,” Rick said.

It was the “442” next to the letters JAP that really touched a chord.

“Our initial reaction was: Is this a joke?” Rick said.

The 442nd Combat Regiment Team was comprised almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans, Rick said, many of them volunteering out of the concentration camps to which their families had been sent. After war with Japan was declared in 1941, people of Japanese descent were rounded up and sent to the camps, mostly in California, out of governmental fear that they might be “loyal” to Japan.

When the men were allowed to volunteer, they formed the 442nd which was the most decorated unit in U.S. Military history.

It was formed in 1943 with 4,000 men. Those men had to be replaced almost twice over, with 14,000 serving.

Of the 14,000 soldiers, almost 9,500 received Purple Hearts, eight received Presidential Unit Citations and 21 received Meals of Honor. In 2010 the unit received a Congressional Gold Medal.

“Most people are not aware of the history and background,” Barbara said.

The unit’s motto was “Go for Broke.”

In October 1944, the 442nd was ordered to rescue the “Lost Battalion” which was surrounded by German forces near Biffontaine, France. The 442nd succeeded but lost more soldiers than they rescued.

All surviving members were made chevaliers of the French Légion d’Honneur in 2012 because of that action.

“This is the context of history,” said Rick, who also served in the U.S. Army. “We’re talking about the same Army. I consider these men my brethren.”

So, the Johnsons mobilized. Barbara wrote a letter to Colyer on Oct. 4, outlining her concerns.

Rick recently retired as an obstetrician in Abilene, and both are active in the Kansas State University Alumni Association, so they called on groups at K-State that dealt with diversity.

They asked the Japanese American Citizen League in Omaha, the nearest chapter, for its help.

On Oct. 30, Lee Ann Phelps of the Kansas Department of Revenue, Division of Vehicles, called Barbara to tell her that the division had decided to recall all 731 Kansas license plates that included JAP and to thank her for bringing it to their attention.

“I was surprised,” Barbara said. “I thought it would be a long, drawn-out affair.”

She said they know it’s an inconvenience for people to exchange their license plates for new ones.

“We want to express our appreciation,” she said.

Contact Jean Bowers at reporter2@abilene-rc.com

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