In an East Texas town, the fight is all in a name

Beaumont confronts its past - and many residents' anger - as it wrangles with the renaming of 'Jap Road,' once meant to honor the Japanese.

It was named nearly a century ago to honor a Japanese immigrant who taught the locals how to farm rice.

But regardless of its intent, the name Jap Road has offended Japanese-Americans and fueled persistent images of racial intolerance in East Texas.

Now, after much wrangling, Jefferson County has asked residents for a new name. Last week, county commissioners voted to rename the four-mile stretch outside Beaumont, not because they believe the residents are bigots, but because they worry the nation does.

"There are people in this country who believe we're a bunch of racists, and that is so, so, so far from the truth," says County Judge Carl Griffith. "Because we can't explain that to everyone individually, we are voting to change the name."

That action angered many of the 150 residents along the road, who say they are simply trying to preserve the legacy of rice farmer Yasuo Mayumi.

They showed up to a public meeting to contest the name change and blast the "outsiders" who pushed the issue to a vote. They spoke fondly of Mayumi and his contribution to the community of Fannett.

"To change the name of that road would be a dishonor to the Mayumis," says Jap Road resident James Derouen. "As far as what the Japs did to us in World War II, we have no animosity toward them."

Beaumont is south of Jasper, Texas, which made headlines in 1998 when three white men chained James Byrd Jr., a black man, to a pickup truck and dragged him to death in a hate crime. It's also just west of Vidor, Texas, where the Ku Klux Klan assaulted black residents following a 1993 federal order to integrate public housing in East Texas.

"East Texas has had several spectacular [race-based] events ... in the last 15 years," says Stuart Wright, a sociologist at Lamar University in Beaumont. "That kind of national perception is something I don't think the city fathers are going want to encourage." But, he says, only part of it is factually based. "Rural areas, areas that are more isolated culturally, are more vulnerable to these kinds of problems, but racism is pretty pervasive throughout the South."

The flap over Jap Road began in the early '90s when Sandra Tanamachi, whose family immigrated to Beaumont from Japan in the 1900s, lobbied unsuccessfully for a name change. Another Japanese-American, Thomas Kuwahara, stumbled across the road on his way to San Antonio and joined forces with Ms. Tanamachi. They hired a lawyer, filed federal complaints, and gained the support of civil rights groups.

They were among dozens of Japanese-Americans and supporters who addressed county commissioners. Some spoke of the pain of being called "un-American" as children, others spoke of humiliating experience in US internment camps during World War II, and all expressed dismay over the word "Jap."

"I know the residents of Jefferson County are good, decent, caring people," said Tanamachi to the crowd. "The only thing that ever caused me anguish here was the name of this road."

The county decision includes the name change and a historical plaque at the site of Mayumi's former home, which he sold in the early 1920s after the US passed a law prohibiting foreigners from owning land. He soon returned to Japan.

But his American friends never forgot him, and they passed his story down. Friday, residents will submit a proposal to county commissioners. Ideas for the new name include Japanese Road and Mayumi Road.

Earl Callahan, coordinating the new road name, says his grandparents were friends of Mayumi's. While he understands that the word is now seen as derogatory, he says changing it would be like rewriting history. "For the first 80 years, there was no issue with the road," he says. "And now we are being considered bigots for wanting to keep our history."

Neighbor Polly Wright, who lives in the house made from the lumber from Mayumi's house, says she is proud to live on Jap Road. "I get to tell the story of Mr. Mayumi. He realized the American dream," she says, adding that while the name may not be politically correct, "It is historically correct."

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