Does “Japadog” Sound Offensive?
Depends On One’s Cultural and Linguistic Background
“Is the vendor name Japadog offensive or tasteful?” asked Alison Scott for GVJCCA HRC in the May issue of this magazine. She mentioned one of the two Japadog stands on Burrard Street, the one near the corner of Smithe Street. That one and its “sister” stand at Pender Street have been attracting a steady stream of customers with “dogs” creatively seasoned with Japanese condiments. When I drove by the Smith Street stand recently, I saw three employees in their orange uniforms sporting the JAPADOG website address, busily hovering around the complex-looking structure of their street stand.
Judging from the website, Japadog is looking to become a minor Vancouver meibutsu, (fixture). But leaving our gourmet readers for now to check the site for the many ingenious ways the old hot dog can be “Japanized,” let’s go back to the issue at hand: is the name offensive? Another way to put it might be, is the brand name too reminiscent of “Jap,” that old epithet/abbreviation which goes back a long way in the English-speaking world? There is no doubt the word took on much more of a pejorative connotation during and after World War II when Japan was that world’s “enemy.” It’s obviously a word we in our community don’t feel comfortable with, allowing for individual differences.
First, let’s look at it linguistically. A native English speaker might hear it as three words, “Jap a dog,” in the same way as, say, the game “Whack a Mole.” With a stretch of imagination, some might hear “Jap” as an abbreviation of the verb “Japanize,” meaning in this case “Japanizing a (hot) dog,” thus expanding on the original meaning of the “J-word.” But even in combination form, the word may still tweak the ear of people who have experienced hearing it used pejoratively against them either directly or indirectly, and feeling slighted.
In the Japanese language, the name is pronounced “Japadoggu” Because long words both foreign and Japanese are often abbreviated, “Japa,” as short for Japan or Japanese, is sometimes used. At an international university I attended in Tokyo in the 1960s, students from abroad were officially referred to as “non-Japanese” to avoid using the word “foreigner.” Japanese students and staff found “non-Japanese” too much of a mouthful, so they all said “non-Japa” instead. Pretty soon, Japanese students with mixed cultural and educational background were being called “han-Japa,” meaning “half-Japanese.” Another example, a much more current one, would be “Japanime,” i.e. “Japanese animation” abbreviated, though “anime” is now more widely used even outside Japan.?Most important, “Japa” has always been clearly distinguished from “Jappu,” the old epithet pronounced in Japanese, which is of course considered a pejorative.
Is the word pejorative or an abbreviation in the English-speaking world? Some readers may find it hard to accept but there are still many in that realm who would insist that “Jap” is nothing more than an abbreviation, short for Japanese. Such people would also maintain that it is their God-given right to decide what words mean in their own language, including those with racist connotations. Sometimes, they might just use the word “Jap” in front of a Japanese, often the only one among a group of listeners, just to make that point, as I discovered back in 1981 when I first went to Singapore to work for a newspaper. During a group meeting, the deputy editor, a bright Chinese Singaporean, used the words “the Japs” instead of “the Japanese” as was normal by then in North America or Europe. Having had the experience much earlier elsewhere, I wasn’t fazed, but I did take the trouble afterwards to ask the guy whether calling us Japs was a common practice in Singapore. He said it was “just a local abbreviation” and “no insult was intended.”
I’d heard that one before, and I’m pretty sure he knew we didn’t like being called that.
I was nevertheless inured to it from having attended school just outside London in the late 50s when my journalist father was transferred there. I still remember the time I was called into the headmaster’s office after some mischief, and him telling me “. . . when we decided to accept you, a Jap who seemed to be doing well . . . etc.” I was 11 and maybe, in hindsight, I was having trouble adjusting as my English was still inadequate, but more to the point, it had been a little over a decade since the war, and “Jap” was a fairly common word from war movie poster blurbs to popular newspaper headlines. My favourite English Sunday paper headline , which I saw much later maybe in the late 60s, is about a pet dog supposedly of British pedigree being mistreated in a Japanese household. “BRITISH DOG IN JAP HELL!” it screamed.
So back to Japadog. Whether or not a part of that brandname sounds like the old pejorative, the image of Japan and her people has undergone a change for the better over the decades so that the kind of stubbornness about clinging to some linguistic “right” to use that word seems to have largely given way to a sensible general recognition—and my personal belief—that words used to describe races shouldn’t be used if these races themselves don’t like it. This evolution reminds me of the fate of the word “Shina,” which the Japanese commonly used up to the end of the war to refer to China. The Chinese have always disliked it and its use has largely disappeared, but there are still some “linguistic” conservatives who insist that it’s a perfectly good Japanese word.
Even in Singapore, the scene of some atrocities by the Japanese Army during the war, the word had practically disappeared from the public arena and pretty much even from personal conversation. by the time I left in 1997. (I don’t rule out the possibility that the word is still used in the absence of Japanese people.) In this day and age of Ichiro, Nintendo and now the Blue Samurai at the football World Cup led by emerging superstar Keisuke Honda, the preferred abbreviation for Japan and Japanese seems to have become, by and large, the letter J, as in CoolJ, JPop and J League.
In conclusion, conceding that I probably hear “Japadog” more as a Nihonjin than as a native English speaker, I would guess it is not offensive or distasteful to other Japanese, nor to most Japanese Canadians or Japanese Americans who are young enough never, or almost never, to have been insulted by that pejorative. For what it’s worth, my teenage kids who are Canadian by nationality and acculturation say Japadog is “totally OK.”