28

It seems the word 'Jap' could have formed along the same lines as 'Finn' (for Finland) and 'Swede' (for Sweden). Perhaps it became more emotively charged during the war?

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    I assume you're referring to "Jap". – Hot Licks Jul 12 '20 at 16:34
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    The policy is to have offensive words in the body but not the title, so I made an edit. – Laurel Jul 12 '20 at 16:43
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    If people throw it around like an insult, it becomes offensive. – Decapitated Soul Jul 12 '20 at 16:47
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    Pretty much any term that implies racial heritage can be interpreted as derogatory, especially when the term is abbreviated. Whether it is intended to be derogatory is up to the reader/listener. – Hot Licks Jul 12 '20 at 17:11
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    It's probably useful to contrast to how 'Brit', 'Canuck', 'Aussie', 'Kiwi', 'Saffa' (for South Africans), 'Czech', 'Dane', 'Swede', 'Desi', 'Naija', 'Boricua', 'Pinoy/Pinay' etc. are also national or ethnic abbreviations (/terms), but almost always positive ones and almost never considered slurs. So it has much more to do with the individual history of usage of that individual term, and not some general principle 'abbreviations considered bad'. – smci Jul 14 '20 at 23:17
45

Jap (as a derogatory term for Japanese):

The term Jap was a neutral demonym in the late 19th century but it got pejorated during the WWII.

In America, the term Jap came into wide use in 1860 to refer to the members of the Japanese embassy to the United States (see "Japs in 19th-century popular usage"). In newspapers, magazine articles, and nonfiction accounts of all kinds it was mostly just a breezy abbreviation, and in its earliest usages referred to specific groups--the embassy, or a particular troupe of Japanese acrobats touring the U.S. Only gradually did "the Japs" become a larger category. [College of Liberal Arts and Sciences]

Dating back to the late 19th century, use of this term was originally neutral. But because the Japanese were the enemy during World War II, the term Jap became derogatory. [Dictionary.com]

Jap was not considered primarily offensive; however, during and after the events of World War II, the term became derogatory. Nisei veterans who served in World War II were shunned with signs that read No Japs Allowed and No Japs Wanted, denied service in shops and restaurants, and had their homes and property vandalized. [Wikipedia]

Japanese family standing in front of house with "No japs wanted" graffiti

— From Pinterest.com

Man pointing to "We don't want any japs back here... ever!" sign above cash register

— From Pinterest.com


According to Japan Talk, the term Jap was not offensive before the World War II, to quote:

Q: Is the word Jap considered derogatory?

Yes, this phrase is widely considered a racial slur. Much of the English speaking world and the Japanese themselves consider this to be a derogatory term. If you use this word to describe Japanese people or culture — you are likely to offend.

The United States

In the United States, the word 'Jap' was sometimes used as a contraction of 'Japanese' before WWII. It wasn't considered derogatory. During the war, the word was widely used in an extremely derogatory way. This included government propaganda. As a result, the word was widely considered a racial slur after the war. Its use dropped dramatically. Today, it's considered extremely offensive by Japanese Americans.

Canada

Japanese Canadians consider the term offensive.

UK

The word Jap is generally considered derogatory in the UK. Britain is home to the largest Japanese community in Europe who consider the term offensive. The Japanese Embassy in London went after a London newspaper for using the term in 2011. The following statement came from the embassy at that time: > Most Japanese people find the word Jap offensive, irrespective of the circumstances in which it is used. ~ Embassy of Japan in the UK

Singapore

In Singapore, the word Jap is widely used as a contraction of Japanese and isn't considered derogatory.

Japan

The Japanese are very aware that the word Jap is often used in a derogatory sense. Using this word is likely to be hurtful.

From densho.org:

In the 1950s, Shosuke Sasaki launched a campaign to have the word “Jap” re-classed as a racial slur and eliminated from print media. He would continue that work for the better part of the next 20 years.

As early as 1880, the English Oxford dictionary noted “Jap” as a colloquial term of abbreviation. Though it may have started out as a neutral term, it took on increasingly negative connotations as anti-Japanese sentiment grew. It was used as a slur against Japanese immigrants and, later, in reference to Japanese American citizens. Following World War II, the use of the word became even more opprobrious but was still in wide use.

In a letter to the Executive Committee of the Newspaper Guild of New York, Sasaki requested that Newspaper Guild Executive Committee place “Jap” in the same category as other racial epithets, discouraging use in newspapers and magazines. His arguments included:

  • “The term 'Jap' is regarded by the Japanese as an epithet of derision. Its use is resented by all Japanese and persons of Japanese ancestry.”
  • “The excuse that the term 'Jap' is usually used without any derogatory intention is pointless. It frequently has been and is being used with the connotation of contempt. Furthermore, not even a moron would persist in calling a person by any name which that person considered offensive, when at the same time the goodwill and friendship of that person were desired.“
  • “The use of the term 'Jap' completely nullifies in the eyes of the Japanese all American claims to being the world’s champion of human dignity.”

In February 1952 , the New York Newspaper Guild passed a resolution and sent a letter sent to all New York publishers. But the resolution was not as effective as Sasaki had hoped and “newspapers continued to use the epithet as freely as ever.” Sasaki mounted a letter-writing campaign to the offending papers and organized protests with the help of the New York JACL.

[Densho.org]


Japanese caricature rat being caught by rat trap labelled "Material conservation" with caption "Jap trap"

This American propaganda poster, created in the months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, is a prominent example of name calling. In this poster, the Japanese are derogatorily depicted as rats while the words Jap Trap is prominently displayed in bold, with quotation marks, near the bottom of the poster. During the Second World War, many Americans used the term “Jap” as a derogatory term to refer to the Japanese, mainly because of the word’s ability to create perfect rhyme with other words and thus, create easy to memorize slogans such as Let’s blast the Jap clean off the map and Jap Trap. By referring to the Japanese as “Jap” in this poster, the propagandist aims to brew anti-Japanese sentiment among its American audience. The rat itself, with its wrinkled, hairless skin, buck teeth, and clawed hands is extremely displeasing to the eye and looks more like a vermin than a human. Coupled with the stereotypical manner the propagandist drew this poster, with its narrow eyes, black hair, circular glasses, and shriveled skin, and the slogan, Jap Trap, it is hard not to associate the Japanese with a negative image after viewing this poster. The propagandist uses this extremely insulting and disgusting portrayal of the Japanese to associate the “Japs” with a negative image of a vermin and brew hatred among the American people. [PropangandaProjectJustin]


Some other anti-Japanese posters:

Japanese caricature rat in front of rat trap labelled "Army", "Civilian", and "Navy"

— From HistoryHit

Eagle dropping bomb on japanese caricature snake wrapped around island labelled "Occupied territory" with caption "Salvage scrap to blast the jap"

— From Wikipedia

Poster with title "What are you going to do about it?", newspaper clipping with title "5200 Yank Prisoners Killed by Jap Torture In Philippines; Cruel 'March of Death' Described", and subtitle "Stay on the job until every murdering jap is wiped out!"

— From Pinterest.com

During the WWII, they were also referred to as Yellow Bucktoothed:

Japanese caricature labeled "Tokio Kid say" with sign "Much waste of material make so-o-o-o happy! Thank you"

— From Japanese-Canadians - Weebly

Japanese caricature labeled "Tokio Kid say" with sign "Boom planes saved from box of scrap make so very unhappy jap"

— From Japanese-Canadians - Weebly

Note: Jap's eye is a British vulgar slang for the slit of the penis; the male urethral meatus. [Wikitionary]

References:

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    Please transcribe what you cannot copy/paste. Text in images cannot be indexed by either the internal search or by external search engines, cannot be copied into a search engine to do further research, does not resize proportionally, and is useless and quite unfriendly to the visually impaired and to others using screen readers. – choster Jul 13 '20 at 4:16
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    All good, I took care of it for you. – choster Jul 13 '20 at 4:21
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    While the first "Tokio Kid" image and the last "Don't save his face" image are both certainly examples of anti-Japanese propaganda, neither of them contain the three-letter epithet at all. Perhaps they should be removed to avoid confusion? – Ross Presser Jul 13 '20 at 15:11
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    Great answer. Very helpful for understanding the issue. – Django Reinhardt Jul 13 '20 at 15:29
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    It's well known that "Jap" was used in a derogatory way during and after WWII. I think it would be more interesting to focus more on the actual question asked: was it ever non-racist to describe Japanese people that way? You quote a couple things making that claim but don't go into detail on those sources, instead spending a lot of space on WWII posters, some of which don't even use that word. Yes, the US demonized its enemies based on race in wartime. This is not very surprising (and not pleasant or a good thing for long-term culture). – Peter Cordes Jul 13 '20 at 17:01
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According to the resources I checked, two derogatory slang terms used specifically in reference to Japanese (and Japanese American) people were popular during and after World War II, both involving shortenings of longer words: "Jap" (from Japanese) and "Nip" (from Nippon). There seems to be some disagreement about which term was then considered more offensive, but both are beyond the pale today—at least in the United States.

Here are the entries for both terms in Paul Dickson, War Slang: American Fighting Words and Phrases from the Civil War to the Gulf War 1994):

Jap. (1) A Japanese. (2) Anything Japanese.

...

Nip. Japan; short for "Nippon." Racist by today's standards, this term was used routinely in broadcasts, news dispatches, and conversation during the war, as was the term "Jap."

And here are parts of much more detailed coverage of "Jap" and ":Nip" in Philip Herbst, The Color of Words: An Encyclopædic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States (1997):

Jap. Pejorative dating from perhaps as early as the mid-nineteenth century for a Japanese person; also used for things made in Japan. In its early decades of use, the derogatory overtones may not have been as definite, and it is still less pejorative in Britain that in the United States. According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989), derogatory use can be traced to West Coast newspapers during the first decade of the twentieth century.

...

During the [second world] war, Americans used the terms Nazi and Fascist to distinguish the German and Italian enemy from German Americans and Italian Americans, but no such terminology applied to the Japanese, all of whom—both American citizens and the foreign enemy—were "Japs" [reference omitted]. Similarly, while Americans fought Hitler, the "Japs," not Tojo or Hirohito, were their enemy during the war. The expression "After all, a Jap is a Jap" was used to justify the government's rounding up of Japanese Americans and sending them to relocation camps.

The editor of the New Republic once defended the publication's use of a headline that read "How to Gyp the Japs," arguing that the term is only a national nickname, similar to Yanks, Brits, or, at worst, Frogs. The Asian American Handbook, which cites this example, counters that words such as Jap and nippers are "not nicknames. They are slurs never to be used" (1991, 4.2).

In 1986, Sense of Congress Resolution 290 recommended to the Committee on Education and Labor that the standard abbreviation Jap (for Japan and Japanese) be replaced by the nonoffensive Jpn. In the 1990s, however, the racist slur stayed in force in response to Japanese success in American economic markets, as shown, for example, in a bumper sticker reading "No Jap crap for this American."

...

Nip, nip, nipper. Demeaning slang for a Japanese or Japanese American, from the Japanese word Nippon (Japan). It was used largely during World War II. "So you knocked down a Nip?" (question put to a pilot, in Nicholas Ray's Flying Leathernecks, 1951). It is still used today, sometimes for any East Asian.

As Herbst notes, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989) has a fairly extensive discussion of "Jap" as well:

Jap, Japanese. The word Jap is a clipped form of Japanese that has been around since the end o the 19th century. ...

Clipped terms are often felt to be somewhat less than respectful—even such inoffensive terms as prof and doc have been criticized—and clipped ethnic terms are doubly suspect. In the United States this term has a considerable history of pejorative use: according to evidence in our files it was used with derogatory intent by newspapers on the West Coast from the first decade of this century. ...

Americans are not unaware that the term was offensive. The first commentator to note this in print seems to have been [G.M.] Hyde [Handbook for Newspaper Workers] 1926, who did not specifically term it offensive but did not approve its use in newspapers. H. L. Mencken in The American Language in The American Language (the 1963 abridgement) says that Japanese-Americans on the West Coast had long objected to its use, but to little avail. And then World War II gave a great boost to the usage. No only did Jap have brevity to recommend it but it probably served a psychological purpose: [quotation omitted].

World War II is more than forty years behind us, and attitudes have changed. Spiro T. Agnew noted hanging attitudes in 1968:

People are getting too edgy, the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate believes, when they take umbrage at being called "Polacks" or "Japs: in a spirit of fun —Homer Bigart, N.Y. Times, 25 Sept. 1968

That sot of fun has seldom been shared in by the ethnic groups so designated.

Jap is generally either used disparagingly or taken to be offensive, even in innocent use. Unless your intent is to recreate the atmosphere of World War II for some reason, use Japanese.

I might add that the last mainstream U.S. political/legal figure I am aware of as having used the term Jap was John Wilson, John Ehrlichman's attorney at the Watergate Hearings in 1973, who used it in reference to Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, as reported in the U.S. House of Representatives History, Art & Archives page dedicated to Inouye:

Within months of joining the investigation, Inouye’s name appeared in headlines across the country when John J. Wilson, the attorney representing former Nixon chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, used a racial slur to describe the Senator from Hawaii. When asked by a United Press International reporter about a line of questioning from Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, Wilson responded, "Oh, I don’t mind Senator Weicker.… What I mind is that little Jap," and gestured toward Inouye.

Standards regarding the acceptability of "Jap" and "Nip" may vary across the English-speaking world, but it is widely considered unacceptable in public discourse in the United States and evidently has a long history of denigrative use in this country.

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    I am aware of nip as a derogatory term but not nipper, which in BrE is a colloquial word for a child, even used affectionately by the parents. "My nipper is in the school team." – Weather Vane Jul 13 '20 at 16:10
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    The comment made by @Peter Cordes to the answer by Decapitated Soul can be adapted to this one: the question was not whether this word is derogatory (most people, including the OP, agree that it is), but whether (and if so when) it was ever not derogatory. – jsw29 Jul 13 '20 at 20:38
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    @jsw29: I apologize for my incomplete answer. As I noted in the answer, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989) says, "according to evidence in our files it was used with derogatory intent by newspapers on the West Coast from the first decade of this [the twentieth] century." I will try to add some early examples of such usage when I have a few hours to spare to do the research—but I can tell you that a quick review of newspaper databases does turn up instances of "Jap" in unfriendly or patronizing contexts even before the turn of the twentieth century. – Sven Yargs Jul 13 '20 at 23:32
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    @WeatherVane Context is everything! In BrE, "nappy" is what Americans call a "diaper", whereas in America it's a derogatory word for black people based on their hair (cf Stevie Wonder's lyric "looking back on when I was a little nappy-headed boy"). And of course the classic of a Brit wanting to borrow a cigarette asking "Can I bum a fag?" :) – Graham Jul 14 '20 at 10:17
9

A Google ngrams search shows that the term was rare until the late 1930s and its use fell off very rapidly in the late 1940s. It had a small revival in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Americans began to fear that Japanese businesses were out-competing them.

A search of the examples in the Google Books corpus shows that most examples before the 1920s are simple abbreviations, usually followed by a period, such as, “Jap. Govt.”

In the 1920s, one sees the term appear as slang. For example, H.G. Wells’ The Land that Time Forgot, published in 1924, makes a not-very-convincing effort to write in a Californian voice:

Californians, as a rule, are familiar with ju-jitsu, and I especially had made a study of it for several years, both at school and at the gym of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, while recently I had, in my employ, a Jap who was a wonder at the art.

Since this is throwing a slang term into a sentence of British English to make it sound more superficially American, I’m hesitant to call it a good example of authentic usage.

There is one other novel from this period in Google’s corpus that uses the term, also of a servant.

A 1928 report by the US Department of Agriculture mentions

The Japanese Dwarf variety usually is referred to by the growers by the colloquial name “Jap Dwarf” and was formerly known also as Sterling Dwarf.

A 1925 register of Jersey cattle lists several prize cows with “Jap” in their names. Some unmistakably use it as a noun to refer to a person, such as “The Jap’s Owl.”

ETA: Thanks to @GEdgar for finding another example: the Montgomery Ward Catalog from 1898 onward frequently used “Jap” as an adjective to refer to silk, satin, pearls and so on, such as in this page from the 1920 catalog. Notably, the catalog was not trying to disparage the products it sold, but to exoticize them.

At this time, it would be a stretch to call the term respectful, but it wasn’t considered an insult until war propaganda began using it as one.

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    There is an example from the Mongomery-Ward Catalog 1898, where "Jap silk" is in a clothing description. – GEdgar Jul 13 '20 at 15:24
  • @GEdgar Interesting. The Internet Archive has other Montgomery Ward catalogs, but not that one. Without context, I’m not sure whether it’s just an abbreviation to save space. It doesn’t sound like a demonym, though. – Davislor Jul 13 '20 at 18:42
  • @GEdgar I found an example from 1920. Thanks! – Davislor Jul 13 '20 at 18:52
  • In Britain, the opening of the male urethra in the head of the penis is sometimes called the 'Jap's eye' by vulgar people. – Michael Harvey Jul 13 '20 at 19:01
  • @MichaelHarvey I did not know that. It’s definitely not an example of neutral pre-war usage, though. – Davislor Jul 13 '20 at 19:02
3

'Swede' is not a shortening of the correct description. 'Swede' is the proper description. (The Swedes live in Sweden.)

'Finn' is not a shortening of a description. 'Finn' is the proper description. (The Finns live in Finland.)

[For the correct spelling of 'Finns' I have consulted en.biginfinland.com]

'Scots' is not a shortening of a description. 'Scots' is the proper description. (The Scots live in Scotland.)

But the Japanese live in Japan.

And 'Jap' is a wrongful shortening of their proper description.

As such, the shortening is a familiarity which is misplaced in a formal setting: for example when someone of a foreign country wishes to name them.

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    The OP might have given 'Brit' as a better example of a shortening of a proper description ('British') that would be unlikely to offend many people. If a words is offensive, it's probably because of the historical context in which it has been used. – user3153372 Jul 13 '20 at 9:14
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    The title question is 'Was the word that is now considered a slur against Japanese people ever considered simply a standard, neutral demonym?' This is properly addressed, with supporting references, in other answers. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 13 '20 at 11:04
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    The etymology of a demonym doesn’t always have anything to do with whether it”s considered offensive in English today, or whether it was at any given time. – Davislor Jul 13 '20 at 11:16
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    This answer leaves an impression that the only problem with this word is that it is informal, while most people would perceive it as offensive if it were used nowadays (although perhaps that was not the case in the past). Note that, as pointed out above, Brit is informal, but not offensive (except perhaps insofar as informality may be mildly offensive in a setting that calls for formality). – jsw29 Jul 13 '20 at 15:56
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    -1. As others have mentioned, shortened or informal demonyms are not necessarily derogatory. Consider "Aussie" (short for Australian), "Kiwi" (colloquial form for New Zealander), "Brit" (short for British), or "Yank" (short for Yankee American). It was the wars that turned them derogatory, as evidenced by Confederate usage of the word "Yank" versus its use in the rest of the English-speaking world. – March Ho Jul 13 '20 at 17:50
3

It was not offensive before World War II but after that most Americans and other people started to mock Japanese people and used "Jap" instead of the full form "Japanese". I have heard a lot about Japanese people. People say Japanese are very nice people but they are also too sensitive to criticisms. They could not stand being called by the slurs which included the term "Jap" that's why it is considered very offensive even in this period of time. Here is an article on Quora.com about their sensitivity: https://www.quora.com/Are-Japanese-people-usually-more-sensitive

I hope it helps.

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    Note that @Decapitated Soul's answer contains a supporting reference ' Jap was not considered primarily offensive; however, during and after the events of World War II, the term became derogatory. ' from Wikipedia, with a link. Answers lacking supporting evidence come across as, and may be no more than, opinion. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 13 '20 at 10:55

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