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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Texans refuse to remove racial slur

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Staff Writer

Thomas Kuwahara has lived on the Mainland since he left home in 1967 for Army basic training. Though he has seen many things in his years away from Hawai'i, he never imagined he'd see anything like the sign he came across in Texas two years ago.

He was traveling from his home in Lafayette, La., to visit a relative in San Antonio when he spotted a sign that just about made him drive off the road.

It read, "Jap Road."

The sign troubled Kuwahara so much that he took it upon himself to investigate. Turns out, the road in Fannett, Texas, off Highway 73 between Port Arthur and Winnie, was named after Japanese farmers who settled in the area in the 1890s. After the land changed hands a number of times, the new owners named the main road in the rural area after the Japanese farmer who sold it to them.

But while the origin of the name may have been fairly innocent in those times, recent efforts to have the name changed to reflect modern standards of sensitivity have been thwarted.

Sandra Tanamachi Nakata, a second-grade teacher at a school in neighboring Beaumont, led a campaign to change the name of the road. She wrote letters to the editors of local newspapers, contacted county lawmakers, and circulated petitions.

Though lawmakers agreed with Nakata's efforts to change the name of the road, area residents put up a fight. Essentially, the residents of Fannett say the name of the road is a memorial to the Japanese families who lived and worked there, not a slur. Local historians claim that the farmers would introduce themselves as the "Japs of Jap Road." Nakata got a heavy dose of "don't mess with Texas."

Even worse, racism raised its head in the debate. While Nakata suggested the name be changed to "Japanese Road" or even "American Road," some angry residents fired back that the name should be changed to "Pearl Harbor Road."

Kuwahara hasn't gotten the same angry reaction. He has gotten virtually no reaction. Over the past two years, he's written letters to local government agencies in Beaumont, state representatives, even congressional members from Texas and Hawai'i, but it's starting to feel like nobody wants to touch this.

What bothers Kuwahara most are thoughts of the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion. Their heroic rescue of the "lost battalion" of Texans in France in 1944 is legend, and the Japanese-American soldiers were even made "honorary Texans."

Kuwahara wonders why Texas seems to have forgotten.

"It's like they know it's racist," he says, "but they just don't want to change."

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.