Kansas Recalls Hundreds Of License Plates Containing Inadvertent Ethnic Slur

Approximately 731 Kansas drivers received plates with an unfortunate combination of letters.

a sample of a kansas license plate
Wikimedia Commons (GPL Aaron Homer)

Approximately 731 Kansas drivers received plates with an unfortunate combination of letters.

Kansas has apologized and asked 731 recipients of license plates with an unfortunate letter combination to turn them in after a California driver noticed that the plates contain a racial slur, Time is reporting.

For the most part, state license plates are random combinations of numbers and letters. However, English is such that some combinations of letters, even if they were generated randomly and with no ill intent, can still strike the wrong note.

Such was the case with Japanese-American Keith Kawamoto. The California driver was going about his day one recent September day when he noticed a car with Kansas plates containing an offensive, three-letter word. He snapped a photo of it and sent it to Kansas authorities, including Governor Jeff Colyer, demanding an apology.

That’s because the series of three letters spelled out “J-A-P,” which was (and still is) an offensive way of referring to Japanese people, gaining prominence around the time of World War II.

“I let them know it is considered a very derogatory racial slur and I don’t think it should be allowed anywhere.”

It wasn’t just Kawamoto. According to the Pacific Citizen, all four Kansas members of the Japanese American Citizens’ League learned of the license plate and started writing letters to Kansas’ Department of Motor Vehicles.

It worked. After receiving enough complaints, the state agency realized that a mistake had been made, and promptly did two things. First, it apologized, and secondly, it recalled the license plates. David Harper, the director of Kansas’ Department of Revenue’s Division of Property Valuation and Division of Vehicles, said in an email to the Pacific Citizen that the owners of the 731 offending plates have been asked to replace them, at no charge.

“We have contacted the current plate holders and requested an exchange of plates at no cost to the vehicle owner. If the exchange is not done at this time, the plates have been identified in our system and will be replaced at the time of their required annual renewal.”

This is not the first time a state has issued license plates that brought shame – or laughs – to their owners. Perhaps most famously, as The Smoking Gun reports, an unfortunate Florida license plate got 12-year-old boys all across the internet laughing hysterically in the early aughts. That’s because Miami businessman Mark Geigel was the recipient of a license plate that had the combination “A55 RGY,” with the Florida orange symbol in the middle. To those of a prurient bent, the combination “A55” kind of looks like a slightly naughty three-letter word, especially considering the font used on Florida plates. The orange sort of resembled the letter “O,” and the last three letters… well, you get the idea.

Fortunately, Geigel saw the humor in it.

“Seems the Florida computer license plate screening algorithm needs a little work.”

Looks like Kansas’ computer screening program could use some work as well.