While growing up on the east coast, Pamela Lavitt, director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Seattle Jewish Film Festival, knew the term “J.A.P.” was a term used for Jewish American women who were spoiled, materialistic and selfish.
“It was a very hurtful thing to be called that. It was very misogynist, it was sexist, and it was intended to cause pain,” she said.
But for Mitsu Sundvall, a Japanese American who grew up on the west coast, the term “Jap” brings back memories of her childhood in an internment camp.
“There’s a quote from the general that was in charge of that camp that always said, ‘A Jap’s a Jap, get them the hell off the west coast!’ They talked like that in the headlines,” recalled Sundvall.
For New York comedian Cory Kaheney, the “J.A.P. Show” was the name of her off-Broadway show. The critically acclaimed show was meant to be an homage to Jewish women in comedy.
So when Sundvall read online that the 2009 Seattle Jewish Film Festival was featuring Cory Kaheney, she was surprised to see that this was brought to the west coast.
Although Kahaney was a part of the film festival to do a show called “Stand Up for Jewish Women”, it was listed in her biography (AJC) Seattle’s website that she was the creator of the “J.A.P. Show.”
Sundvall decided to speak out and a friend of hers had contacted Bettie Luke of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of King County (APIC).
After the Asian American community and Jewish community stumbled around trying to communicate, they quickly knew they had to meet in person. So on July 16, Asian American representatives and the AJC had a very productive meeting, according to Luke.
What had resulted was APIC and the AJC Seattle working together to issue a joint statement to ban the use of the word and to help others understand it’s offense from the Jewish point and the Japanese American point.
Wendy Rosen, the director of AJC, says that they came together to raise awareness about language, how it is used, and the hurtful nature of language.
Luke and Rosen had invited members of the community to join in confirming the statement. This included Jon Bridge and Adam Goldblatt from AJC Seattle; Ruthann Kurose from APIC; Lavitt from the AJC Seattle Jewish Film Festival; Diane Narasaki of APIC and the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS); Roger Shimomura and Mitsu Sundvall of the Asian Pacific American community; and Karen Yoshitomi of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).
“I hope that it will move to the point where the discussion talks about what is respectful cross cultures, what a victim can say if they are subjected to inequity and or insulted,” said Luke. She wants to see the statement being discussed in public schools with young people.
Lavitt would like the statement to educate people on the use of the term and to perhaps even take an opportunity for joint education programs in the future, possibly even at the next film festival.
Sundvall hopes that it will be able to reach people on the east coast and clear up the great deal of disconnect from the use of that by the Jewish community on the east coast versus the west coast, where there is a larger Japanese American community.
Sundvall believes that none of the people in the Jewish community had any intent to use it as a slur.
“I know nobody in the Jewish community had any intent to use it as a slur. They didn’t intend to offend Japanese people,” said Sundvall, “but those on the east coast are just clueless.”
On the other hand, Lavitt initially felt misunderstood when the issue had first come up.
“There was no intention to cause harm or hurt or harassment or be malicious in any way,” said Lavitt, who’s goal for AJC and film festival is to educate the Jewish and general public about intolerance. “I felt that it was strange to be at the center of having being accused of using a word that was an intolerance to the Japanese community.”
Luke states that there is less awareness on the offensiveness of the term “Jap” because of the generations that have passed since the Japanese were incarcerated and the camps.
“We need to teach the struggles and the past, not in terms of pointing fingers and accusations and creating guilt at all, but it’s like, learn the lesson so that it doesn’t happen again,” said Luke.
Sundvall believes that people do not think the term is offensive.
“It’s kind of a borderline term as far as offensive goes. But if you are a Japanese American who lived through World War II in this country and you lived through that experience, you would know.”