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Japanese Angered by U.S. Acquittal of Student's Killer

May 25, 1993|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — The acquittal of a Louisiana man who shot and killed a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student last Oct. 17 produced anger and befuddlement here Monday, reinforcing an image of the United States as a sick and gun-crazed society.

"The judgment reflects the pathology of a society where one of every three households has a gun," the Asahi newspaper said in its evening edition Monday.

A Baton Rouge jury found Rodney Peairs, 31, not guilty of manslaughter Sunday because he mistook Yoshihiro Hattori for an intruder when the latter knocked on the wrong door looking for a Halloween party. The case quickly became a symbol of the gulf between Japan and the United States in attitudes toward gun ownership, self-defense and crime.

Gun ownership for Japanese citizens is barred and has been for 400 years, except for the samurai, who were disarmed in the 19th Century.

Many Japanese also shook their heads in amazement that an act of killing could produce an innocent verdict, because the system here does not generally offer the same gradations of culpability, and the act of shooting itself is generally seen to constitute criminal intent.

The fact that courtroom spectators broke into applause after the innocent verdict was read seemed, to many Japanese, shockingly insensitive to the tragedy of Hattori and his family.

Hattori's father, Masaichi, who attended the trial, said afterward: "Unimaginable. In the end, (my son) died in vain."

The Hattori family and their supporters have vowed to press a campaign for stricter gun control in the United States. So far, they have gathered 1.5 million signatures in Japan and 20,000 in the United States.

The Louisiana verdict was the main news story in Japan on Monday after the Cambodian elections. It was displayed on the front pages of most major newspapers. Underscoring the American attachment to firearms, Japanese news networks broadcast several interviews with Louisiana residents who supported the verdict. "Sure, I've got a gun. In this society you've got to have a gun," one man said in a typical comment.

And Japanese newspaper readers were treated to the grim facts of U.S. handgun ownership. Firearms: 200 million of them, found in one of every three households, the newspapers reported. Handgun murder victims: 10,567 in 1990, compared to 87 in Japan.

"The United States is an advanced country in many ways, but just as Japan is said to have a first-rate economy and third-rate politics, the United States is a developing country regarding firearm possession," one Tokyo Women's University professor told the newspaper.

Still, many Japanese seemed resigned to the verdict as the inevitable result of a society trapped in a cycle of violence.

"The U.S. court verdict can't be helped," one Japanese lawyer told reporters here. "As unimaginable as it may seem to Japanese, in America it's common sense to have a gun to defend your home."

In Washington, the Administration said it understands the anger felt in Japan over Peairs' acquittal. "We hope that this won't have any harmful effect on U.S.-Japanese relations," White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos said.

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