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Friday, June 8, 2012

That which must not be spoken

Posted By on Fri, Jun 8, 2012 at 12:40 PM

When I'm playing Scrabble, I sweat over how to use my last three tiles and still get the triple letter score. I resort to dictionary words, even abbreviations if I'm playing by the rule that allows them. Yet there's one word I will never play, even if it cost me a game against my savvy Scrabble champion of a mom.

The owner of the Growers Retail Outlet in Pineville, who has worked in the nursery plants and equipment business for 60 years, wanted to spell out Japanese Maple, a woody shrub found in a variety of colors, on his store sign on North Polk Street. However, Bill Stamey didn't spell out "Japanese." Instead, he used an offensive abbreviation.

"We have Japanese customers here, and they're fine people," he tells me. "We just don't have enough letters to go on our sign. It doesn't mean a thing."

Apparently it means something to at least two people who called complaining about the sign, but Stamey says the complaints he heard were not from patrons of Japanese descent. As if that makes the word OK to use.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 - which caused the U.S. to officially declare war on the country during WWII - President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which permitted the military to profile Japanese people in the name of national defense. Subsequently, the measure sent 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, many of whom were U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens, to internment camps for many years. Some died due to poor living conditions while others were killed for allegedly not following the rules.

The three-letter term is a haunting reminder of these atrocities. During the war, the word was used on the covers of newspapers and in offensive cartoons of Japanese people. There was even an attempt to legally discourage it when Rep. Michael Lowry presented the House Concurrent Resolution to Congress in 1986 that would have recognized "Jpn" as the "appropriate abbreviation" and mark the other as racially derogatory and offensive. While this bill was not enacted, Congress later passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which paid $20,000 to each internment victim.

Sure, there isn't an "official" go-to term in case you run out of space on your sign for Japanese Maples. But as the dictionary proves, the word denotes a dark side of American history marked with racism, fear and violence. Stamey asked me to send him research on why the word is so offensive. Consider it done, sir.


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