The welcome death of a pejorative term

There has been considerable consternation in WWII history pages on Facebook in recent months due to the website’s algorithms targeting the word ‘Jap’, a shortened form of ‘Japanese’, usually directed as an insult racial. Those who use the word currently risk a stint in Facebook’s so-called jail: a suspended account with the promise of longer suspensions for additional offenses.

The pushback for the descendants of World War II veterans has been palpable, with countless reasons being offered as excuses for using the term. None are particularly convincing.

The word is a harmless abbreviation, according to many, on par with Aussie, Kiwi, Brit or Yank. Interestingly, this may be partially true. When looking for a Japanese-directed slur, Brits usually go for Nip, while viewing “Jap” as relatively benign. Elsewhere, however, including in the United States, birthplace of Facebook, the use of “jap” is indisputably decried.

How about JAP, others argue, the non-racial acronym for motorcycle engines John Alfred Prestwich, Just Another Punk, Journal of Applied Psychology, and Java Anonymous Proxy? Should one reasonably be suspended from transcribing the abbreviations of these terms? Obviously not. In the relevant context, with capitals and, in many cases, the inclusion of dots denoting an acronym, there should be no problem.

Others say the term is necessary for the accuracy of historical citations and ask why do we sanitize history? Quote “Jap” as written by those of past generations, but be sure to quote and source.

From a practical point of view, there is also no problem. Adding “anese” does not cause much difficulty. If brevity is a real concern, an even shorter alternative such as “Js” could be used without offending anyone. In the proper context, everyone will know what that means.

When all of the above has been refuted, the true argument of the complaint is commonly articulated. It goes along the lines of “my ancestor fought in the Asia-Pacific War and used it afterwards. He was a good guy, so if it was appropriate for him, it is appropriate for me.

This then leads to an all-too-common problem with soldiering and warfare: rationalizing good people doing/saying bad/questionable things. In this case, racist speech.

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Treaty of Versailles negotiations (Public domain via Wikimedia)

First, a little reality check on the world into which the supposedly greatest generation of the democratic West, the generation that fought World War II, was born. As uncomfortable as it may feel, this world was racist. Racism was mostly codified. It was the law.

Take Australia, for example. It is a peculiarity of Australians that they can usually tell you the name of America’s first president but cannot recite that of Australia’s first prime minister (Edmond Barton). Young Australians don’t learn it in high school, partly because it’s best known for its whites-only immigration regime – the White Australia Politics ー and for having said that: “The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the English and the Chinese”.

A former Prime Minister of Australia whose name is slightly better is Billy Hughes, which is generally known when it comes to trade unionism. What is much less known is that Hughes led the campaign to strike down the racial equality clause that Japan was proposing to include in the Covenant of the League of Nations, negotiated at the Palace of Versailles at the end of the First World War.

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Many are familiar with the “German Versailles” (hardship repairs, the rise of a bitter and vengeful Adolf Hitler, and the initiation of the European theater of World War II). Hughes did a lot to ensure that Japan had its own “Versailles”.

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With such a prelude, it is not surprising that at the start of the Asia-Pacific war, a series of newspaper advertisements placed by the Australian Government to rally the nation concluded with the words: “We have always despised them – NOW WE MUST CRUSH THEM!”

Australia was not unique ー indeed, far from it. The democratic powers that confronted Japan in World War II were uniformly racist. The rationalization of their continued colonial control over much of the non-Western world was based on the creed of white supremacy.

Am I implying that those fathers, grandfathers and great-uncles who called the Japanese “japs” were racist? I have no idea. I have never met them. But this is clear: if they weren’t, it would have been an achievement, because their society was educating them to be.

Many members of the Greater Generation were passively racist in that they regularly used racist terminology, including “Jap”, even before World War II. In truth, they could hardly have done otherwise, given that these conditions were standard rates.

The children of the greatest generation, however, were not much better. In the 1960s and 1970s, to be gay was to be “poof,” and “Jewish” was code for money-stingy.

It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that these terms began to fall out of use. Therefore, “Jap” should reasonably have disappeared from the popular lexicon before the end of the 20th century. Yet many World War II veterans did not let him down.

This is, to some extent, understandable and forgivable. The war leaves its mark. If a Pacific War veteran insists on calling the Japanese “Japs” until his dying day, so be it. But what about the following generations, those who defend its use today?

It could be argued that the children of the larger generation also suffered greatly from the residual effects of war through their parents and elders. However, it is considerably more difficult to argue that they have the moral right to defend the problematic three-letter abbreviation in question. By the way, when does it end? For how many generations can this form of racism be excused?

In truth, Facebook’s policy timing seems right. A common refrain from these WWII veterans is, “Not in my lifetime!” The current reality is that few of the greatest generation remain with us. And of those who participated in the 1941-45 Pacific War and are still with us today, few are likely social media participants.

As a result, it’s reasonable for Facebook ー and society as a whole ー to say enough is enough, and toss the term “Jap” into the dustbin of history.

Author: Paul de Vries

Find other articles by the author on history on this link.

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