License plates containing ethnic slur are recalled after complaints

A complaint about an ethnic slur offensive to Japanese-Americans has prompted Kansas to recall hundreds of license plates containing the random letter combination “JAP.”

The issue arose in October 2017 when Keith Kawamoto, 70, saw a Kansas license plate near his Los Angeles home and took a photo of it. Kawamoto then wrote several letters to Kansas officials, including Gov. Jeff Colyer.

“I let them know it is considered a very derogatory racial slur and I don’t think it should be allowed anywhere,” Kawamoto said.

Kansas’ motor vehicles division apologized, but Kawamoto wanted Kansas to get all plates containing the three-letter combination recalled.

The Pacific Citizen, the newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League, first published Kawamoto’s photo of the Kansas plate.

When Barbara Johnson, a 67-year-old Japanese-American woman living in Abilene, Kansas, saw the story in the Pacific Citizen, she said it brought back memories of her childhood.

“It was not a good time to be Japanese because of Pearl Harbor and World War II,” Johnson said. “I recall vividly as a child being called ‘Jap’ — and how it made me feel so small and hurt by being called that.”

Johnson conceded that Kansas officials probably didn’t know “what it means anymore because it was World War II, a couple of generations ago.”

With her husband Rick, the Kansas couple set out to do what Kawamoto had not: get the plates recalled and off the road.

Rachel Whitten, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Revenue, said the issue came before the department’s review board, which made the decision last month to pull any current license plates with the lettering and prevent its use in future plates.

“It was very gratifying to know there is someone in government that was willing to hear our side of the story and to recognize it and to proactively act on it as quickly as it did,” Rick Johnson said.

The Kansas Department of Revenue said there are 731 active registrations containing that random letter combination on standard license plates. Vehicle owners were sent a letter dated Tuesday asking them to return the plate to their county vehicle office within 30 days for replacement at no cost.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.