Trick or Treat

YUMIKO SHIMATSU

June 04, 1993|By YUMIKO SHIMATSU

Tokyo. -- Every October Japanese news stations film American mothers shepherding costumed children -- their own and their Japanese neighbors' -- on trick-or-treat visits through neighborhoods outside U.S. military bases. Japanese audiences are always amused, and the sales of pumpkins at the international supermarkets have been rising.

But not this year, or next, and maybe never again. In the wake of last week's verdict exonerating a Louisiana man, Rodney Peairs, for the shooting death of 16-year-old exchange student, Yoshihiro Hattori, Halloween will always evoke a sense of dread. ''Trick or Treat'' will be remembered as a prelude to ''Freeze'' followed by a gunshot.

Deep down many Japanese people suspected Americans would be incapable of rendering justice. All year we watched the videotape of police officers beating Rodney King. We knew it took riots in Los Angeles to reverse the initial jury decision. And we knew that nobody in Louisiana was going to riot in the memory of one Japanese youth who stepped on the wrong porch.

What stuns most Japanese is not the acquittal itself but how fear of crime and suspicion of strangers have become part of everyday American life. It seems that shooting instead of trying to communicate has become accepted in the name of self-defense, deepening the stereotype of violent, gun-crazed Americans.

The stereotype is very close to the truth. I have lived in the United States and heard gunshots from my bedroom, witnessed a hostage siege on my block and seen the nightly news reports of drive-by shootings. (The violence is one of the reasons I left.)

Americans should remember that Japan is a country with total gun control. No private citizen is permitted to own a handgun. Our respect for the law is not perfect and the number of gun-related crimes is rising (though still rare). But nobody is suggesting that we allow everyone to keep a gun in their home. We know guns do not deter crime, or else why would Japan's burglary rate be far less than America's?

What hurt many Japanese more than the jury's decision was watching Mr. Peairs' family and friends cheer at the verdict while young Hattori's parents were in the same courtroom. The scene of American elation and Japanese grief commingling symbolized for many the worsening relations between our two countries.

While Americans as individuals are still welcomed here, there is a revulsion toward America itself. In a letter to a major Japanese daily, Yoshihiro's mother, Mieko Hattori, admitted: ''I cannot help but think that a society in which an innocent kid is killed by mistake and the criminal is acquitted is sick.''

Japanese news commentators, shocked by the clever arguments of Mr. Peairs' lawyers, point out that lawyers hold 14 Cabinet-level positions in the Clinton administration and ask whether these are the kind of people who should command our trust.

In an editorial, the Mainichi newspaper describes America as ''backward,'' while politicians, business leaders and media pundits question whether a country that is unable to control violence at home is capable of being a world leader. Some of us begin to perceive America in the same way Americans view Bosnia or Colombia.

To many Japanese, the brutali- zation of American society seems irreversible. Chiako Aso, a well-known woman writer with a son slightly older than Yoshihiro Hattori, admires American culture and has many American friends. But she says she has decided not to visit America.

It is an irrational decision which will not improve the trade balance, help America's economic recovery, or improve bilateral relations. Both sides will lose.

But many Japanese no longer have any doubts about where the fault lies.

Yumiko Shimatsu, who lived and studied in the United States, is a Tokyo-based writer and media researcher. She wrote this column for Pacific News Service.

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