Out of Japan: Culture shocks end in tragedy

TOKYO - Yoshihiro Hattori, a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student from Nagoya, and his friend Web Haymaker, also 16, were out to have a good time last week. The two boys had been invited to a Hallowe'en party in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Yoshihiro had dressed up in a white jacket, mimicking John Travolta in the old disco film, Saturday Night Fever. It was Saturday night.

Yoshihiro had not been in the US for long, and his command of English was not very good, but he had become good friends with Web, with whose family he was staying.

At about 7.30pm, the boys knocked on the front door of the house where they thought the party was. There was no answer, so they went to the garage door and knocked. A woman appeared and looked startled. Then the woman's husband, Rodney Peairs, came out with a revolver and told the boys to 'freeze'. Web did, but Yoshihiro, not understanding and apparently thinking it was a joke, stepped forward and asked: 'Where's the party?' Mr Peairs shot him in the chest, killing him almost instantly.

The tragedy was cruelly ironic, as one of Yoshihiro's relatives said later: Yoshihiro 'came to learn cultural differences, and it seems these cultural differences killed him'.

The neighbourhood in Baton Rouge had been plagued with crime, and the Peairs family kept a gun for self-defence. Private ownership of firearms in Japan is forbidden, so Yoshihiro would not have realised the threat of the man with the gun. Nor did he understand 'freeze' as a command not to move.

But after the initial shock of the boy's death, the reaction in Japan was revealing. The story was covered extensively by Japanese media, but the tone was of genuine concern for how such a tragedy could happen in the US. There was none of the racist animosity that has criss- crossed the Pacific recently, from American and Japanese political figures seeking to chalk up points at home.

It could have gone the other way, particularly after the Japanese consul in Louisiana, Yasuhiro Hamada, started to throw his weight around, calling Yoshihiro's death 'completely unprovoked, unjustified and unnecessary'. Mr Peairs has not been charged, because police said there was no evidence of criminal intent. A grand jury is to review the shooting.

But Mr Hamada's comments were drowned out by Yoshihiro's parents, who flew to the US for a memorial service last week. The father made a touching and brave speech calling for reconciliation. Thanking the many Americans who turned up, Mr Hattori said: 'I really appreciate that you regarded my son as part of your community. We cannot break friendships which my son cherished here because of this accident. And I am very sorry to hear that the man who shot my son is plagued with a guilty conscience.'

These words captured the hearts of the Japanese public. The press explained how the US 'gun lobby' has prevented any effective crackdown on firearms. But it was done in the saddened tone of someone let down by a friend, not that of a nation seeking retribution. Mr Hamada subsequently changed his tune and told the press: 'We haven't been given enough information so I don't want to discuss it now.'

Yoshihiro's mother said student exchanges between Japan and the US should be increased to help mutual understanding, rather than cut back because of the tragedy. In Nagoya and Baton Rouge at least, US-Japan 'bashing' has been made out of date by a boy's death.

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