My Dad Called the Japanese “Japs”

Just the way in which a name is said can be an insult.

Photo for ObituaryCropMy Dad, who died in 2021 at the age of 92, called the Japanese “Japs” to the end of his days, despite the fact that he never fought in WW II.  He was an adolescent and then a teenager throughout the war years, patriotically watching the newsreels and reading newspaper reports of the war.  But he never encountered battle with the Japanese.

Instead, Dad spent most of his adult lifetime working in the industrial fastener industry. Japanese manufacturers were often his industry’s strongest competitors.  I suspect that this fact had more bearing on his biased nomenclature than the actual events of WW II.

Later, following the events of 9/11, Dad despised all Muslims with the same loathing he had always bequeathed the Japanese.  I’d taken him to the zoo one Father’s Day when he was in his 80s, and, as we were leaving, we saw an American serviceman, in uniform, with his Muslim wife and children.  Dad simply glared.  “I don’t like seeing that,” he remarked to me, his words clipped and angry.  “I just don’t like seeing that.”

Knowing my Dad as I did, I was not surprised, although dismayed.  “For the love of heaven, Dad,” I protested, “not all Muslims are terrorists!”  But he shook off my words as a dog shakes off water.  To him, just as the Japanese would always be “Japs”, so all Muslims were terrorists and fanatics.

Yet despite the fact that his own brother fought during the Korean War, while Dad himself lived through the horror of Vietnam, watching the carnage on the nightly news (always fearful that my older brother would be drafted and seeing the sons of his friends and neighbors go off to fight and die in an undeclared war)–well, despite all of this, Dad never referred to Asian people using the horrendously insulting “gooks”.  I’m uncertain why this was.  Perhaps he just never encountered that derogatory  term.

Dad once forwarded me a video of a meeting in which a Muslim woman in the audience stood to ask the panelists a question about fighting the sick ideology of Muslim terrorists without harming the hundreds of peaceful, law-abiding Muslims worldwide.  The panelist who responded did so by making a number of very valid points about the innocent, peaceable people of Germany, Italy, Japan, and a half-dozen other countries, all of whom were led into wars they did not want and would never have begun, by a fanatic minority leadership.  The panelist’s points were compelling, but the manner in which she made her remarks was a discourteous rant.  Her voice grew more and more strident and agitated until she was nearly shouting.  Her fury was quite out of proportion to the reasonable question posed so courteously by the young Muslim woman. When I replied with this perspective on the video, my Dad chose not to respond.

But I find that it’s all too easy to dehumanize an entire group, a full spectrum of humanity, in order to justify evil behavior of our own.  All we need to do is label both the good and bad apples with an insulting sobriquet – to call them honkeys or the reviled N-word,  or redskins or spics,  kikes or Micks, Japs or gooks or Krauts.  We don’t really even need to come up with a nasty name; just the very way in which the word is said, spitting it out (“Jews!”) can be enough of an epithet.

So, no matter how much I loved my Dad, I continued gently suggesting the correct nomenclature — yes, even in public — when he spoke of  “the Japs”.  I mildly reminded him of the hundreds of peaceful and law-abiding Muslims who are not terrorists, and that an entire group of people cannot be defined by an ideologically sick few.

It’s unlikely that my remarks made any difference at all to my father’s worldview.  But I always felt better for having spoken.

Despite the way it might sound, I posted this essay to honor my Dad–my contrary, opinionated, self-proclaimed “mean old Wop” Dad–who would, had he lived, have turned 93 just a few weeks ago.  And if you appreciated this essay, you might also enjoy, “Same Argument, Different Decade”, from January 19. 

The Kindly Neighbor and the Generations

§  To imply that today’s youth do not know sacrifice is to minimize and belittle everything they have experienced.  §

A friend asked me—not in an accusatory manner, but just curiously—why none of my recent weekly blogs had discussed the coronavirus pandemic. My initial reaction to her question was, “Dear God, don’t we all have to read and hear enough about it every day?” But, the simple truth is that my blog posts are usually scheduled as many as four to six weeks in advance, leaving them very little probability of corresponding to current events.

Only a day or so after her question, though, I received an e-mail lightly connected to the pandemic which simply set my teeth on edge; so much so that I decided to rearrange some scheduled posts to include an essay about it.

I cannot name the original source of this material, since the e-mail I received did not include it. Here, however, is the article that arrived in my email in-box, along with a note remarking that it was “just beautiful”.

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My reaction to this essay was swift and very negative. I re-read it multiple times in dismay, finally summarizing it for myself as follows: A kindly, thoughtful person makes special effort to ask if an elderly neighbor needs anything during a national crisis, and receives in return a rant, a harangue; a tirade closed by a scathing, condescending remark. And while I have rarely been the recipient of offers of neighborly helpfulness, I am certain that a critical lecture and nasty remarks would not be my first choice of response.

My second reaction to the account was that of weary disgust: I am so tired of generation bashing! Whether it is the self-named Greatest Generation deriding Baby Boomers, or Boomers disparaging Gen X’rs and Millennials, or Millennials ridiculing Boomers and Generation Z…I am sick of it. Each generational group is composed of individuals—individuals who differ greatly from each other despite their shared experiences. There are things we can all learn, wisdom to be gained, from appreciating one another’s viewpoints–but that wisdom cannot be gained so long as we continue to disparage each other.

No generation has a premium on dreadful events.  Each generation endures pain, and war, and sacrifice. Pearl Harbor was no more shocking than 9/11. The “police action” of Korea and the undeclared war of Vietnam were just as horrific for those who fought them as the Second World War. And I feel certain that those soldiers who battled through the First World War could easily have spoken just as scathingly to the man of this story as he did of subsequent generations.

Nor is disease limited to any one generation. A survivor of the Black Death from the Middle Ages, transported through time to the era of Spanish Flu, might well have laughed ironically: people were not, after all, dying while lying on straw pallets, covered with lice and fleas.  Lesser diseases were not under the sole proprietorship of the Greatest Generation, either. A Boomer myself,  I had classmates who survived polio; I endured measles, mumps, chickenpox, and rubella.  I was dreadfully sick with whooping cough as 40-something adult. My daughter, a Millennial, caught chickenpox before a vaccine became available.  I watched two co-workers barely survive MERSA.

Boomer children grew up under the horrifying reality of the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,  and the grip of the Cold War; we daily walked past the radiation insignia of the shelter areas within our schools as we ran practice drills for surviving nuclear annihilation. Sissies?  I feel sure that “duck and cover as you prepare to be vaporized by a nuclear warhead” did not comprise part of childhood  of that 80-something man.

To say that today’s youth do not know sacrifice is to minimize and belittle everything they have experienced. True, they do not recall a world without instantaneous communication, even from the battlefield, but the very world they have been born into is dying: the polar icecaps and Antarctic ice fields melting away; bees, butterflies and bats, all our pollinators, dying off at unprecedented rates. They have grown up in schools drilling not to survive nuclear war, but active shooters; they have watched their classmates mown down before their very eyes. And now they are dealing with the first genuine world-wide plague for 100 years. For them, this will always be the defining moment of their generation: when they had to shroud themselves in a chrysalis of isolation, afraid to hug a loved one or touch their hand; watching their parents and grandparents and even classmates succumb to an invisible enemy and barred from them as they died, gasping for breath.

No, I have reached the conclusion that the real man in the sad little tale I was sent was not, as declared, that full-of-himself 80-year-old, declaiming his one-sided story,  lauding himself while deriding all those whose experiences did not match his particular world view. The real man, was, I think, that kind-hearted neighbor who, unasked, came to see to the needs of an elderly man…and who came away, quite unappreciated and totally belittled.