I love hearing from people who’ve read Letters Home because it’s a delayed sharing of the experience I had reading the original letters as I transcribed selections from them. My sister said, “He used the word ‘Jap’ a lot.” He did. I was struck by that, as well. I did some research and found that prior to WWII the word Jap didn’t have a stigma attached to it. Pearl Harbor obviously affected how the Japanese people were viewed by Americans. Still, there must have been some transition period.
Louis CK does a bit about the word Jew where he points out that Jew is acceptable. “That person is a Jew,” sounds fine but put a little stank on it, “He’s a Jew,” and the speaker reveals anti-Semitism in his or her thinking. I imagine during WWII there were a lot of Americans putting a lot of stank on the word Jap, so much that now, well after the war is over and our two countries have maintained peaceful, friendly relations, that word, Jap, having been loaded with negative connotations, has been removed from polite society and become a racist slur.
So where were we in 1945? Probably everyone used the word Jap freely. No one was going to condemn anyone for using a racist slur against people we were at war with, for one thing; for another, it probably wasn’t thought of, yet, as a racist slur. It was still what Japanese people were called, just that most Americans felt a lot of animosity for those people and said Jap with a lot of stank on it. So I truly think context has to be applied to individuals using that word at that time. Anyone who reads Letters Home will probably find, as I did, that Rex Jones felt a great deal of empathy for the enemy. In one letter he is answering a letter my grandmother wrote where she must have mentioned how he must not like them shooting at him, and he responded: I don’t exactly appreciate those guys shooting at me but I don’t suppose they like having bombs dropped on them either.
After the war has ended, he mentions hoping to get over to the mainland so he can talk to a Jap pilot. I opened letters after that date hoping to find him telling the story of when he got that chance. I wanted to listen in on that conversation from seventy years into the future, I probably don’t need to say how badly. He never did but even in the letter where he mentions he’s on his way home to see his wife and baby he brings it up again. He says he doesn’t care because he’s just glad to be coming home, but then why did he mention it? Of course he mostly wanted to get home, but he did seem to regret this missed opportunity. What did he want to talk about? I wish he’d said. Since he mentioned a pilot specifically he might have wanted to talk shop. He might have wondered how their planes handled. It hurts to wonder because I’ll never know, but I suspect there was more to it. I think he wanted to bond with an individual from the collective enemy he’d been fighting, and I think that opportunity would have helped heal him. But that’s conjecture. I left my conjecture out of the book, so people could form their own impressions from his story in his words, so I don’t want to speak for him here, either. The impression I formed was that he had no hate in his mind when he used that word, and I hope people who read it come to that same conclusion.
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