The New York Times
Texas Community in Grip of a Kind of Road Rage
Published: July 16, 2004

BEAUMONT, Tex., July 14 - It is merely a four-mile stretch of asphalt on this East Texas city's outskirts, dotted with some ranch-style houses, a few decaying trailer homes and a shuttered gun shop, in the distance the rice fields that brought a small group of Japanese settlers here a century ago.

But the name of the country lane, Jap Road, has long angered many Japanese-Americans. Equally outraged are numerous people who live on Jap Road, which has 100 or so residences; they view criticism of their address as meddling in their affairs.

"I hear 'Jap' cars and 'Jap' bikes all the time," Buddy Derouen, 69, a retired petrochemical worker who lives on the road, in the community of Fannett, said in a recent letter published in The Beaumont Enterprise. "Why not Jap Road?"

The competing positions are set to clash in a meeting on Monday at the Jefferson County Courthouse. Leading the county commissioners' agenda is a discussion of whether they should change the name.

Advancing the issue this far has been a victory of sorts for Sandra Nakata Tanamachi, whose family settled in Beaumont after immigrating from Japan in the early 1900's. Before moving away to Lake Jackson, south of Houston, Ms. Tanamachi, an elementary-school teacher, lobbied more than a decade ago to have the road's name changed. She was unsuccessful.

Last December, however, she allied herself with Thomas Kuwahara, a helicopter pilot from Lafayette, La., who was stunned to come across the road a few years ago while driving to San Antonio to visit a relative. They filed a complaint with two federal agencies - the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development - trying to keep Jefferson County from getting federal money unless the road's name was changed.

"We Japanese are often ignored, but we're still individuals with feelings," Ms. Tanamachi said in an interview, speaking with a thick Texas twang. "I felt I could not stand in front of my students and talk about values like dignity and respect and not fight this thing."

Scott Newar, the lawyer representing Ms. Tanamachi and Mr. Kuwahara, said HUD had told them that it did not directly finance any housing programs in the county, a circumstance effectively limiting its actions. The Department of Transportation has asked Texas state authorities to examine the complaint, Mr. Newar said.

Civil rights organizations, meanwhile, including the Japanese American Citizens League, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Anti-Defamation League, have voiced support for changing the name.

Considerable outside involvement has come in recent weeks from the Japanese American Veterans Association. Drawing attention to the sacrifices its members made in World War II, the group will be using the meeting in Beaumont to discuss the role of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Japanese-American unit whose exploits included rescuing soldiers of the Texas 36th Division, national guardsmen who were trapped by German forces in the mountains of eastern France in 1944.

"Jap Road should not be a part of the United States landscape,'' said Kelly Kuwayama, 86, a member of the 442nd who said he planned to travel from Washington to Beaumont to speak at the meeting. "And Texas is certainly part of the United States, or at least it was the last time I checked."

The thought of outsiders' descending on Beaumont makes many here bristle. More than 100 residents of Jap Road and supporters of their effort to maintain its name gathered at an open-air bar on Wednesday evening to drink beer, eat barbecue and ponder how to thwart their opponents.

"We're not here to bash the Japanese," Wayne Wright, a retired petrochemical worker who is spearheading a movement to preserve the name, said in an interview before the meeting. "How can I be considered a bigot and a racist when I got a Puerto Rican son-in-law?"

Mr. Wright's wife, Polly, said she believed the name was originally intended to honor the memory of Yasuo Mayumi, a Japanese farmer who, according to local lore, settled in the area in 1905 before returning to Japan in the 1920's.

"If we change the name, we're conceding to the idea that it was meant the wrong way - and it wasn't," said Ms. Wright, pointing to wood on her floor that she said had come from Mr. Mayumi's house nearby. "We're proud of the name of our road."

Beaumont still has a small Japanese community, numbering fewer than 50, but none were present on Wednesday night at the gathering in opposition to changing the name. Some opponents said they had Japanese friends who were also against changing it, but none of the people whose names they provided responded to requests to speak about the issue.

"I might be in the same boat if I were them,'' Terry Shima of Gaithersburg, Md., vice president of the Japanese American Veterans Association and former member of the 442nd, said of those maintaining silence. "It's completely understandable. It is very Japanese, especially in a place where you're far outnumbered, to bite your tongue and not make waves. That is part of why we feel this is so important."

L. J. Bergeron, a retired pipe fitter and former gun shop owner who lives on Jap Road, did not bite his tongue when asked about the name.

"If it's offensive to someone, they should either move or stay away from here," said Mr. Bergeron, 62, leaning on the Harley-Davidson parked in front of his home.

A change might focus attention on another stretch of road nearby. The town of Vidor, in neighboring Orange County, has a road called Jap Lane. Carl K. Thibodeaux, who as the county judge is chief among the county commissioners, said officials had no plans to change the name because the residents of Jap Lane were not inclined to do so.

Ms. Tanamachi, the retired schoolteacher who brought the issue to the fore again here in Beaumont, plans a return Monday for the courthouse meeting. She said she owed it to her uncle, Saburo Tanamachi, who was raised in Beaumont and died in World War II fighting with the 442nd.

If the commissioners vote in favor of a change - if not Monday, then perhaps later - possible alternatives include Japanese Road or Mayumi Road.

"Anything but Jap will do," Ms. Tanamachi said.