Editor’s note: This story was chosen as one of our top 12 in 2010. This story showed that something good can come out of something bad. The Asian and Jewish communities sat down to work out a controversy surrounding the use of JAP, which, to the Jewish community, is an abbreviation for Jewish American Princess. However, to the Japanese community, it’s an ethnic slur. In the end, both communities resolved to work together more in the future.
By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
To many U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry, the use of the term “Jap” is considered a racial slur with a hate-filled history going all the way back to World War II.
According to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “JAP” is also an abbreviation for Jewish American Princess. It is a disparaging term used to describe a “stereotypical well-to-do or spoiled American Jewish girl or woman.”
The Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of King County (APIC) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Seattle issued a joint statement on Sept. 1 saying that Jap must be eradicated as a term used to describe specific members of both communities.
The symbolic declaration comes after the controversy that followed from Cory Kahaney’s use of the word. Kahaney is a comedian who did a show as part of the 2009 Seattle Jewish Film Festival. Statement co-chair Bettie Luke said, “We’re not vilifying this comedian, but she, basically, was the catalyst.”
Luke is a multicultural representative of the APIC and has been a multicultural trainer for businesses and schools for more than 30 years.
The comedian’s biography, which was posted at the AJC Seattle website, stated that she was the creator of a “J.A.P.” show. Statement co-chair and AJC Seattle Director Wendy Rosen said, “[In 2009], we brought in a comedian to do a one-night performance, and she didn’t perform this show.”
“[But] really, it was our mistake,” Rosen added. “We should have taken that from her biography.
We should have deleted that when we were advertising her coming to the Seattle Jewish Film Festival to perform. It was hurtful to the Asian community. It was so hurtful to us as well.”
While it’s not a law, both Luke and Rosen hope the declaration will raise awareness and lead to more discussions about why the word should no longer be used. “This is so we don’t have an issue like this again,” said Rosen.
“Hopefully, once we send this out, we have invited people to also add their name … and say we, too, support this view,” Luke said.
The project started in October 2009. Eight other committee members met with Luke and Rosen for the first time in July 2010. The other committee members included Diane Narasaki, executive director of Asian Counseling Referral Service, Karen Yoshitomi, regional director of Japanese American Citizens League, and several AJC Seattle members.
“That [first meeting] was important to clarify because some in the Jewish community who grew up on the East Coast don’t have that sense of outrage over the internment camps for the Japanese,” Luke added.
“They don’t even consider, at all, that the Japanese community would be insulted by the use of the term. There’s no connection between ‘Jewish American Princess’ and anything Japanese,” said Rosen.
“My girlfriends wouldn’t have called me that. I wouldn’t have called them that,” Rosen added. “My mother never used the term, and my daughter had certainly never heard of the term. So, it’s a term here in the Northwest that we consider very insulting.”
Luke and Rosen drafted the statement, sent it to committee members, received constructive comments, and finalized it. Luke pointed out, “I think both of us were really pleasantly surprised how well we worked together and how in concert we were in terms of the direction we were going with this.”
The AJC was established in 1906 to protect Jewish populations in danger and work toward a world in which all peoples are accorded respect and dignity. Its key area of focus is combating anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry.
“What was so upsetting and, I think, surprising and shocking for us is the AJC is all about promoting understanding and tolerance and pluralism and democratic values,” Rosen emphasized. “We fight against any level of racism and intolerance.”
There is a historical partnership between Asians and Jews, one that was most evident during World War II. Feng-Shan Ho of China and Consul General Sempo Sugihara of Japan each received the title “Righteous Among the Nations” for their efforts in helping Jews during the Holocaust.
Luke said, “We knew we had this history, and it helped remind us that [the partnership] had fallen away, and it needs maintenance.”
One similar effort occurred in 2002, when Washington state struck the word Oriental out of all government statutes, codes, and regulations from July 2002 onward.
“Language can hurt,” said Rosen. “I want people to read this statement, and I want people to think about how they use language, not just in terms of this statement, but how they use language in general.” ♦
For more information about the American Jewish Committee Seattle, visit www.ajcseattle.org.
Editor’s note: Use of the word “Jap” instead of the “J-word” in this story was the editor’s decision, not the reporter’s.
James Tabafunda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.