License to Thrill: Kan. Cans ‘JAP’ Plates

November 16, 2018 • National, News

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

State Capitulates on Plates, Will Recall Extant Offenders

By P.C. Staff

[Editor’s note: See related story here.]

When Abilene, Kan.-based JACL member Barbara Johnson read the Sept. 7-27 Pacific Citizen and learned that her state had issued an automobile license plate reading “442 JAP,” she was outraged — and inspired to do anything and everything to take on her state’s bureaucracy to not only prevent the issuance of future plates use of the racial slur “JAP,” but also to recall any existing plates including that combination of letters.

But before Johnson, her husband, Rick — constituting two of Kansas’ four known JACL members — and the JACL’s Omaha Chapter (geographically the nearest JACL chapter) could mount what she believed might be a long and drawn out campaign to persuade the state to end the practice and recall the plates, she says she received a phone call informing her that the state would no longer issue plates containing the “JAP” sequence of letters — and that Kansas was going to recall any existing plates.

“I wasn’t quite prepared for it,” Johnson told the Pacific Citizen. “I kind of had to shake my head and do a double-take because I was expecting to be in a long-term fight and to hear this news — I had to ask her [Lee Anne Phelps, Vehicle Services Manager at the Kansas Department of Revenue Division of Vehicles], ‘Can you tell me that again?’ ”

According to Johnson, Phelps allowed that it would be a process and take a little time, but that there would indeed be recall. “I was shocked, really, and almost crying because this was totally unexpected,” Johnson said.

The call came, ironically, the morning of Oct. 30, the day after Barbara and Rick Johnson had driven 3-1/2 hours to Omaha, Neb., attend a strategy meeting with members of the JACL chapter, which included Kai Uno, chapter president, and Nina Hayes, the chapter’s co-VP of membership (and the Johnson’s daughter).

Officials From Kansas Take Action

In the meantime, the Pacific Citizen has learned via an email from David Harper, the director of Kansas’ Department of Revenue’s Division of Property Valuation and Division of Vehicles that “the DOV decided to restrict the use of ‘J A P’ in future license plates, and pull any plate currently in use with that combination. We have contacted the current plate holders and requested an exchange of plates at no cost to the vehicle owner. If the exchange is not done at this time, the plates have been identified in our system and will be replaced at the time of their required annual renewal.”

The Pacific Citizen also learned how many extant Kansas plates featuring “JAP” will need to be removed and replaced. In an email to the P.C., Phelps wrote that there are a total of 731 Kansans with plates containing that three-letter combination. Phelps reiterated that those needing news plates will “get replacements at no charge.”

Harper also wanted to let the public know that “the Division of Vehicles takes complaints very seriously.”

Pacific Citizen Article Spotlights Issue

As noted, the news that Kansas had issued plates containing “JAP” came to light in the Sept. 7-27 issue of Pacific Citizen which reported how Culver City, Calif., resident and Venice-WLA JACL Chapter member Keith Kawamoto had seen a car near his home with a Kansas license plate reading “442 JAP.”

After the article’s publication, Kawamoto and Johnson connected, communicated and commiserated on the topic — and how to deal with it.

Johnson, whose premarriage name was Barbara Hanae Kimitsuka, sent a letter on Oct. 5 to interim Gov. Jeff Colyer — who in August lost his bid to be the Republican candidate for Kansas governor to Kris Kolbach, who was subsequently defeated Nov. 6 by Democrat Laura Kelly —that expressed her concerns over plates from her home state, explaining that “ ‘Jap” is derogatory, a racial slur, as the “N” word is to African Americans.” The letter also contained the Pacific Citizen article.

She also provided Colyer with her and her husband’s Kansas bona fides: “Rick and I are Kansas residents; we are your constituents. Until his recent retirement, he had a medical practice (OB/GYN) here in Abilene. We, and our three children, have graduated from Kansas State University, and are all life members of the KSU Alumni Association. I am a past board member of the Alumni Association, and both of us are former trustees of the KSU Foundation. Rick and I are currently members of the Abilene-Omitama Sister City Board.” While she never received a direct reply from Colyer, she believes it had an effect on the eventual positive outcome.

Kawamoto Reacts to the News

Upon hearing the news that Kansas was taking positive action on the issue, Kawamoto said it was “the best news that I could expect.” He told the Pacific Citizen that before learning the news, he had also initiated communication with the U.S. Department of Transportation on the matter.

While he admitted it was purely speculation, he believes that word may have come from the DoT to Kansas to do something. “I told them, ‘I’m the state of California and I saw this [Kansas license plate] in California. Because it’s a motor vehicle, it’s capable of crossing the state line and therefore it becomes a federal issue. Therefore, it’s under your jurisdiction.’ The lady didn’t know what to say.”

The person Kawamoto spoke to at the DoT did call him back and said the plate was purely random. Kawamoto said he told her that no other state in the union would allow this and when asked, provided her with his photo of the plate and a copy of the Pacific Citizen article. “I think when she saw that, she just about had a cow,” said Kawamoto. “She said, ‘Let me see what I can do about this.’”

When Kawamoto returned from a vacation, he learned from Johnson the news that Kansas would end using “JAP” in its license plates and recall existing plates containing the three-letter combination. He said he was surprised at how quickly it happened. “I don’t think anybody expected this. I don’t think anybody really knew what to expect. There’s no formula or manual on how to address an issue like this,” he said.

John Saito Jr., president of the Venice-WLA JACL chapter of which Kawamoto is a member, told the P.C., “Our chapter is extremely proud of all the work that Keith has done on this matter. This all started more than a year ago when Keith saw an out-of-state car with this license plate while he was driving in his neighborhood of Culver City one day.

“From that day on, Keith doggedly worked on raising awareness, informing anyone and everyone who might be interested in becoming involved in this case and contacting officials at the local, state and national levels to ultimately bring about important change.

“So it’s been a one-man crusade, and Keith deserves all of the credit. It’s a progressive act on the part of the Kansas DMV, and it’s one that is overdue.”

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