The story didn’t appear on the front page. It didn’t even come with a byline. The article simply noted it was written “By P.C. Staff.”
But the Sept. 7, 2018, story in the Pacific Citizen about a Los Angeles JACL member who saw a car driven by a Kansas motorist with the license plate “442 JAP” could not have better illustrated the critical role news coverage can play in effecting important and, in this case, landmark change.
Because without the intervention of the P.C., the state of Kansas would still be allowing its cars to drive on roads and highways with the letters JAP on the front and back of its bumpers.
I was in the trenches, so I know. As president of the Venice-West L.A. JACL chapter, this matter came to our attention almost a year earlier. Keith Kawamoto, a longtime board member, was driving on a street near his home in Culver City, Calif., on an otherwise clear autumn day in October 2017, when he spotted the car in question. The gray Nissan sedan was directly in front of him. He stared at the plate, and the plate stared right back at him. He ended the brief standoff by pulling out his digital camera and snapping a photo.
Kawamoto shared the encounter and picture at our next board meeting. Traffic, he said, prevented him from getting a better look at the identity of the driver. With few other details at our disposal, we were left puzzled why someone from, or associated with, the U.S. Army’s famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team of World War II would be the owner of such a plate.
After contacting the Kansas Dept. of Revenue, Division of Vehicles — the equivalent of most states’ Dept. of Motor Vehicles (DMV) — Kawamoto found out that this was not a vanity plate, but one that was legally issued by the Sunflower State.
So, that explained the 442 part. But it didn’t explain or justify the JAP part. A Dept. of Revenue official apologized to Kawamoto for the way he felt about the plate. But since the state randomly issued this plate and didn’t find derogatory or malicious intent during that process, the Kansas vehicle division felt the matter was closed.
In the meantime, our chapter contacted JACL Executive Director David Inoue and our district governor, Carol Kawamoto, who went to work connecting with the Midwest district governor and other JACL members in that part of the country.
Months passed, and it felt like we were stuck in neutral, because frankly, our efforts weren’t gaining much traction. So, I called George Johnston, the P.C. senior editor of digital and social media and the de facto lone staff writer. He deemed the story as newsworthy. Due to other assignments and the upcoming JACL National Convention in Philadelphia last July, it took Johnston some time to do his full reporting.
After interviewing Keith Kawamoto and reaching a Kansas Dept. of Revenue spokesperson, a story appeared in the P.C. on Sept. 7. Among those who read the article was one of the only four JACL members who lives in Kansas. It spurred her to get involved. Kawamoto continued to press forward and was in communication with a federal official from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.
Within weeks, Kawamoto heard back from the Kansas vehicle division that it was going to recall that license plate and 730 other plates bearing the letters JAP. He was also given assurances that the state would no longer issue plates containing those three letters in sequence.
Once Johnston had heard about the latest development, he asked us a favor to refrain from speaking publicly about this breaking news until he was able to write a follow-up story. We obliged. A second story ran in the P.C. on Nov. 16.
Johnston then shared this story with the Topeka, Kansas, bureau of the Associated Press, or AP, the national news wire service. The AP ran its own piece, which appeared in USA Today and other mainstream dailies. The New York Times and CNN did even better than that and had reporters on the beat covering this issue. In a conference call in January, P.C. Executive Editor Allison Haramoto noted that the story had appeared in news outlets as far away as Australia.
As a postscript, the P.C. story still has an online presence and can be viewed by virtually anyone. It’s nothing short of intriguing to see posts left by so-called Internet trolls. They are neither JACL members nor P.C. readers. But if they are able to hide under the cloak of anonymity, then it’s also a perfect forum for them to freely weigh in.
Several have accused Kawamoto of “phony outrage” and waging a “frivolous complaint.” As his penance, one critic suggested that Kawamoto, and not the state of Kansas, bears the fiscal burden of covering all administrative costs to replace the plates.
Another said there was “zero reason for the media to report on this.”
There’s plenty more, so go online and read the comments if you like. But the truth is, there were 731 valid reasons for the media to report on this, and in the end, it did.
And it all started with the P.C.
It’s now April, so in addition to printing editions twice a month, the P.C. is in the midst of its annual Spring Campaign. All gifts help provide staff with the resources it needs to continue its great and important work. I’ve made my contribution to this year’s campaign. I hope you will, too.
John Saito Jr. is the PSW P.C. Editorial Board Member and president of the Venice-West L.A. Chapter.