Twenty years have passed since Yoshihiro Hattori was shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On Oct 17, 1992, recalls the Sankei Shimbun (Oct 10), the 16-year-old exchange student from Nagoya, on his way to a Halloween party, was mistakenly dropped off at the wrong house. The panicked householder, a 30-year-old supermarket worker named Rodney Peairs, yelled “Freeze!” but Hattori, clearly misunderstanding the command, kept approaching. Peairs fired a .44 caliber magnum bullet into Hattori’s chest at nearly point blank range, and the boy died before he could be taken to a hospital.
Peairs, charged with manslaughter, invoked the “castle doctrine” defense whereby Americans have the right to apply lethal means to protect their homes, and was found not guilty by a jury. The Hattori family pursued the case in civil court and four years later won $650,000 in damages, of which only $100,000 was paid by Peairs’ insurance company. Half that amount was distributed to various U.S. groups in support of gun control measures.
“He tried his best to adapt to life as an exchange student,” recalls Yoshihiro’s mother Mieko.
“Sometimes I feel like he’s still in America,” his father, Masaichi, remarked wistfully. “Some day he’ll come back home, I say to myself.”
Driven by a combination of grief and determination, the Hattoris circulated a petition calling for more stringent controls on firearms and collected 1.7 million signatures from Americans. In November 1993, they submitted the petition to President Bill Clinton at the White House.
Following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001, however, Americans became more aware of the need for self-protection, and controls on guns lapsed. Recently, the Sankei notes, random shootings with multiple fatalities have occurred in succession.
Japanese were once again reminded of the Hattori incident on March 30, 1994, when two Japanese students at Marymount College in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Takuma Ito and Go Matsuura, were shot and killed during an attempted carjacking.
Two weeks later, Shukan Gendai magazine ran an article with a headline, stated only half in jest, that read: “Amerika de korosarenai tame no ikikata oshiemasu” (Here’s how to avoid being killed in America).
Should Japanese buy guns to defend themselves? The magazine asked a Los Angeles police official.
“It wouldn’t do any good,” he replied “Guns do not provide effective protection from carjackings. Knowing the area and exercising sensible precautions would work better.”
Shukan Gendai also provided a list of hints for survival in the U.S., including:
- Form friendships with locals and learn their survival skills
- Go native in appearance. (Males should grow facial hair as it will make them look more Hispanic in appearance.)
- Carry your money in two different places, so in case you’re robbed, you’ll still have a stash to get you home.
- Under no circumstances should you put up resistance against an armed robber.
As the 20th anniversary of their son’s death approached, Mieko and Masaichi Hattori were making preparations to travel to Baton Rouge and meet with the American family that had hosted Yoshihiro. Mieko was also preparing a speech to deliver before a gathering.
“I’ve been observing American society for the past 20 years,” she tells the Sankei. “The ongoing situation there has been incomprehensible to Japanese. I want to encourage more ways to adopt gun control.”
Despite the Japanese public’s shocked reaction of the Hattori and Ito/Matsuura killings, the number of Japanese going to the U.S. for study continued to rise, peaking at close to 47,000 in the late 1990s. By 2010, it declined to about half that number, due to factors believed to have very little to do with gun violence.