The first time I ever heard the term “JAP” was at a spartan, secular camp in Maine that, like many of its kind, had a fair share of Jewish campers. My cabinmates and I were lodging a complaint about three older campers who came from a notably Jewish Northeastern suburb. Our tormentors had braces, and their features sat awkwardly on their faces in the way all features do in adolescence. They were like us, yet they were not, because they had chutzpah enough in bikini tops to crown themselves queens of the camp social scene. They turned the announcements, the open mics, the DJing, the talent shows into a staging ground for their own inside jokes. “Those girls can be really jappy,” the director receiving the complaints told us sympathetically. He was a member of the tribe, yes, but I had been convinced he was going to say snobby or cliquey or mean, not, you know, Jewish.
Then, less than six months later, I started seventh grade at a prep school in New York City, and I got it. JAP wasn’t just about ethnicity—it described an entire modus operandi. We used “JAP” in the halls of Horace Mann to criticize the popular girls and issue warnings about creeping conformity. “You’re wearing that? I never thought you’d be such a JAP.” JAP indicated in its broad sweep the ostentatiously wealthy—and also all those who were self-assured enough to run with them, or ride with them in their BMWs as the case often was. When we made use of the shorthand, it targeted the handful of non-Jews, including black girls, Indian girls, and WASPs, who hung out with impunity in the ranks of the “Jappy group.”
I probably uttered the word “Jap” five times a day for six years, only misunderstood when I ventured out of New York City and people assumed I was being viciously racist towards Japanese people. No, I explained, being provincial in the guise of sophisticated: Jewish American Princesses. You know what I’m talking about? Like: Kate Spade, nose jobs, drivers. JAPs.