Acquittal in La. shooting dismays, confuses Japan Student's death mars image of U.S.

May 25, 1993|By John E. Woodru | John E. Woodru,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Torn between horror and rage, Japanese struggled yesterday to comprehend how a U.S. jury could acquit a man who shot to death a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student who came to his door by mistake last October.

The country seemed consumed by the issue yesterday, a day after Rodney Peairs, 31, was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the killing of Yoshihiro Hattori in Louisiana.

Mr. Peairs shot Yoshihiro with a .44-caliber Magnum revolver two weeks before Halloween last year when the Japanese exchange student was on his way to a party and mistakenly went to the Peairs house, frightening Mr. Peairs' wife.

The shooting itself received a lot of attention here, with many viewing the United States as a land overwhelmed by crime and guns. For millions of Japanese, the case became an object lesson in the depth of the cultural and historical gulfs that divide this tradition-bound land from its giant market, ally and trade rival, 12 airline hours across the Pacific.

"Attitudes toward possession of guns are based on the different histories of various countries," Yohei Kono, the chief government spokesman, told reporters hours after the acquittal was announced in Baton Rouge, La.

Japanese must try to understand that the verdict "was based on these differences," Mr. Kono said.

But television screens here turned into a daylong procession of interviews with stone-faced citizens who showed no taste for a culture where, as one put it, "There are so many guns a jury doesn't mind when a teen-ager is killed for getting lost and ringing the wrong doorbell."

Wild West stereotype

In a country where national obsession with the United States is always filled with both admiration and revulsion, many feel the death and the trial have confirmed the worst stereotypes of U.S. society as a Wild West movie come to life.

"It is clear that in the last 10 or 15 years, society in the U.S.A. has become so violent that there are many cases like Hattori's, where someone felt so afraid in his own home that he killed someone first and asked who it was later," said Yoshimu Ishikawa, a writer who specializes in U.S. topics.

Proud of streets so tranquil that women safely walk home alone late at night, Japanese have trouble conceiving of a "right" to own a handgun, much less a right to "protect" a home by shooting an intruder without asking any questions. In Japan, private guns are so rigidly controlled that only gangsters either commonly own them or die by them.

Even U.S.-trained lawyers and sociologists who knew acquittal was likely seemed baffled during the weeklong trial when asked to explain the differences to Japanese less schooled in the ways of U.S. juries.

"We had to anticipate a not-guilty verdict, because in the U.S. one has to protect oneself, and protecting oneself with a gun is a right under Louisiana law," said Masao Horibe, a professor of U.S. law at Hitotsubashi University.

U.S. jurors, who themselves live with a crime rate that makes robbery a commonplace occurrence, were sure to sympathize with Mr. Peairs, Mr. Horibe said.

For most Japanese, even the workings of a jury trial, unknown in this country's legal system, needed explanation.

Cases are simply tried by judges here, so TV newscasters used graphic diagrams to explain that in Louisiana, 10 of 12 jurors could acquit but that in this case the decision was unanimous.

Contrasting images

But what gripped many viewers yesterday seemed to be the contrasting images on their television screens.

One was Mr. Peairs, a soft-spoken and visibly contrite minister's son who cried on the witness stand and was shown over and over again saying into TV cameras after the verdict, "I'm very sorry that any of this ever happened."

The other was Masaichi Hattori, the dead boy's dark-suited, bespectacled father, who was shown equally often, stoically expressing disbelief and saying the verdict meant that "in the end" his son's life "was thrown away."

Mr. Hattori has become both the organizer and the object of a rare outpouring of national emotion that has amassed 1.6 million signatures in Japan and 20,000 in the United States on a gun-control petition to the U.S. government.

Organizers said yesterday they hope to go on collecting signatures in both countries and present them to President Clinton in November, the month of the boy's birthday and the 30th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In Nagoya, the Hattoris' home town, the boy's mother, Mieko, expressed a hope that Mr. Peairs would now join in the petition drive.

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