Woman to be honored by Japanese-American group for road renaming fight
By: Rolando Garcia, The Enterprise
05/25/2006

Her career as a reluctant civil rights activist began when Sandra Tanamachi and her family went looking for the area's tastiest catfish.

Tanamachi was new to this area and coworkers recommended The Boondocks, a popular seafood restaurant near Fannett, located on what then was Jap Road.

Her son, 18 at the time, was so offended at the street name he refused to get out of the car when they reached the restaurant.

"It was an eerie feeling driving down that road," Tana-machi, who now lives in Lake Jackson, said in a phone interview. "That slur was right there in the open on street signs."

For her 12-year fight to rename the road, which finally succeeded in 2004 after a controversy that garnered national media attention, Tanamachi will be honored next month by a national Japanese-American advocacy group.

The Edison Uno Civil Rights Award, given bi-annually by the Japanese American Citizens League, will be presented to Tanamachi June 24 at the group's convention in Phoenix.

That follows an award Tanamachi received last year from the Japanese American Veterans Association at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Despite the accolades, Tanamachi, who had lived in Beaumont only since 1988, wanted to remain anonymous when she began her efforts in 1990.

She thought that just sending photos of the street sign to Japanese-American groups would spur them into action, Tanamachi said.

The woman who taught at Blanchette Elementary School for 10 years also underestimated how much resistance she would face.

"I thought if I just let people know (jap) was a racial slur, they would change it," Tanamachi said.

But when she made her case to Jefferson County commissioners, only one voted to change the road's name.

Residents had strongly opposed the change and argued the street was named to honor two brothers from Japan who operated a rice farm in the area in the early 1900s.

The issue died until 2004. This time, local Hispanic and black activists, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, joined the fight.

Commissioners voted to change the name and Jap Road residents chose to rename it Boondocks Road, after the now-closed restaurant.

Efforts like Tanamachi's are crucial because many Americans still do not understand how offensive the term "jap" is, said John Tateishi, executive director of the San Francisco-based group honoring Tanamachi.

"The j-word is about as denigrating a racial slur as you could use," he said.

Tanamachi is the first Japanese American and the first non-professional activist to receive the award, which typically honors those from other civil rights organizations, Tateishi said.

Jap Road was not the only place name changed in recent years because of objections based in racism.

Last summer Orange County Commissioners voted to change the name of its Jap Lane after activist groups complained it was offensive. Residents along the roadway, which is broken into three distinct segments, chose Duncanwoods Lane, Japanese Lane and Cajun Way as replacement names.

Chink's Peak in Idaho and Jap Rock in Florida also have also been dropped, Tateishi said.

rgarcia@beaumontenterprise.com

(409) 880-0732