Gun Stance Highlights Cultural Gap between U.S. and Japan

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." - Bill of Rights, Second Amendment

The connotation of the Second Amendment is subject to passionate debate in the United States. Over the past few years, a spate of fatal shootings such as the Columbine school tragedy brought the issue of gun-control increasingly into public debate. Of late, the intensity of the debate crested again due to the National Rifle Association's (NRA) advertising campaign that berated President Clinton and his Administration's pro gun-control stance. On March 13, the Vice President of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, asserted that Clinton "…is willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda and his vice president, too." The White House responded on March 14, accusing the NRA of making "outrageous and disgusting" charges about the President.

American supporters of stronger gun legislation have gained increasing international support during the past decade. Conversely, certain factions of the NRA, along with other groups like the Second Amendment Foundation, generally consider foreign input on domestic gun policy to be a national threat. In 1992, the shooting death of a 16-year old Japanese exchange student, Yoshihiro Hattori, escalated a growing concern in Japan about personal safety in the United States and raised significant questions about the effectiveness of current U.S. gun control policy.

On October 17, 1992, in a working class neighborhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the innocent confusion of two boys and the misperception of two adults combined with the deadly force of a 44 magnum to a tragic end with an international impact. In just a few months as an exchange student with the American Field Service, "Yoshi" had become a student who, according to classmates, everybody liked. Yoshi Hattori played tennis, knew how to break-dance and fit in with any crowd. Known for his quirky moments of entertaining classmates by dancing in the school halls, Hattori decided to go to his first Halloween party in the U.S. dressed in a white tuxedo, imitating John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever. It was to be the last outfit he ever wore.

Yoshi and Webb Haymaker, his homestay brother, drove together from Webb's upper-middle class home to an unfamiliar neighborhood. The boys were on the right road when they parked Webb's parents' Volvo outside the house festooned with Halloween decorations. Right road, right decorations, wrong house number -- the boys inadvertently transposed some of the numbers in the address. This small mistake proved to be fatal.

The unfortunate chain of events was well documented by the media in the U.S. in the days and weeks that followed the tragic incident and the trial of Rodney Wayne Peairs -- the man who shot Yoshi in response to his wife's hysterical reaction to two unusually dressed strangers at the door. The media in Japan exploded in response to Yoshi's death. Japanese journalists and television news moderators struggled to provide plausible explanations about circumstances that would lead an American family man to yell "FREEZE!" and shoot a youngster in a suburban neighborhood. One of the most popular explanations was that Yoshi had confused the word "freeze" for "please" as in "please come in," therefore he moved toward the house and placed himself in peril. Japanese journalists surmised that the misinterpretation occurred because the "p" and "f" sounds are difficult for many Japanese to distinguish. Although this theory was widely spread and accepted, the possibility is unlikely that anyone hearing a terse phrase shouted out would mistake that for an expression such as "please come in," which is warmly stated in normal tones.

Richard Haymaker, Louisiana State University professor and the homestay father of Yoshi, asserted that attributing misinterpretation of words put blame on the boy where there should have been none. During the criminal trial of Rodney Peairs, the court spent time discussing the possibility that Yoshi had made this misinterpretation. Jurors who believed this argument may have been more inclined to side with the defense in perceiving that Hattori had erred. Haymaker expressed frustration that this reasoning had become a part of the courtroom drama. "It was a distraction," Haymaker stated, that was used by the defense to obscure the fact that a man had stepped out of his house without thinking and killed a boy.

Following Yoshi's death, the Hattoris and Haymakers, in their grief, became knowledgeable about firearms in the U.S. The couples formulated a petition directed toward President Clinton with a brief synopsis of Yoshi's demise and the assertion that firearm violence in the U.S. must be curbed. The petition urged the president to sign the Brady Bill into law. On November 22, 1993, almost one million U.S. signatures and 1.65 million Japanese signatures were presented to Ambassador (to Japan) Walter Mondale. President Clinton accepted the signed petitions and met with the Hattoris to express his sympathy. Subsequently, the Brady Bill was passed by a narrow margin in Congress, requiring background checks and a five-day waiting period for gun buyers.

For seven years, the Hattoris and the Haymakers have continued to advocate gun control by giving speeches in the U.S. and in Japan. In Japan, these couples seek to spread Yoshi's story and relate activities of gun control support groups while attempting to redirect the resentment and fear that many Japanese feel in regard to the U.S. "gun society."

It is only natural that Japan would register shock at firearm death statistics in the U.S. Possession of firearms for self-defense is banned by law in Japan. Ownership of certain types of guns -- air rifles, hand rifles, rifles, air pistols, pistols and shotguns -- is allowed only for the purpose of hunting or sports shooting and there are numerous legal prerequisites for obtaining any of these types of guns. Yearly, the number of gun-related deaths in all of Japan amounts to far fewer than might be expected in any major U.S. city annually. Japan has a population of about 127 million, approximately one-half that of the U.S. However, it is alarming to consider that in 1997 for every person mortally wounded by a firearm in Japan more than 1,400 people died as a result of firearms in the U.S. 1997 figures available from the National Center for Health Statistics in the U.S. document that 32,436 people died as a result of firearms in the U.S. compared to 22 people killed by firearms in Japan.

Number of Gun-Related Deaths in the U.S. in 1997 (all races, both sexes)

AGE

HOMICIDE

SUICIDE

UNINTENTIONAL

UNKNOWN

ALL

0-9

139

1

48

3

191

10-14

208

126

94

11

439

15-19

2,233

1,135

164

61

3,593

20-24

2,938

1,452

136

54

4,580

25-34

3,794

3,010

165

76

7,045

35-44

2,288

3,321

130

63

5,802

45-54

1,096

2,647

96

33

3,872

55-64

450

1,859

58

23

2,390

65-74

228

1,906

51

17

2,202

75+

130

2,102

39

24

2,295

Unknown

18

7

0

2

27

TOTAL

13,522

17,566

981

367

32,436

Resentment, sadness, shock, outrage and fear in Japan have been met across the Atlantic with empathy, as well as by opposition. Thousands of Americans signed the Hattori/Haymaker petition in 1993; several cities commemorated Yoshi by planting hundreds of daffodils in local parks. Other Americans wrote letters of apology to the Hattori family and pushed members of Congress to pass stronger gun control measures. On the other hand, hundreds of letters arrived at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C. from citizens asserting that Americans' constitutional right to bear arms would not be infringed upon by foreigners. Some writers invoked old resentments harkening back to U.S.-Japan conflict in World War II.

Many gun owners in the U.S. use their guns for sport or hunting, as in Japan. Even today, there are people who rely on hunting to put food on the table. Many people with guns have never hurt, threatened or intended to caused injury to anyone. There are also gun owners who have defended themselves and others against danger and violence with a gun. Statistics demonstrate, however, that any individual with a gun in the home for the purpose of self-defense is 43 times more likely to kill a family member than an intruder. This was the case recently, when a man, thinking a robber hid in a closet in his house, shot his child.

Currently, it is still our right, as Americans, to bear arms. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson stated that, "No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government." Are the millions of people who advocate gun control laws helping to prevent unnecessary deaths or putting people in a helpless position to protect themselves against violence and tyranny?

A right wing Internet site, Guntruths.com, relates that Adolf Hitler, in the Edict of March 18, 1938, stated, "...the most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subjected people to carry arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subjected peoples to carry arms have prepared their own fall." Certainly, the idea that gun ownership could empower the people in the event of a tyrant such as Hitler lends support to the pro-gun stance. However, today in the U.S. groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and individuals like Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski espouse the belief that tyranny in government is here now and are acting in accordance with that view.

The killing of Yoshi Hattori, the outcome of his trial, and the reactions of the Japanese and American public highlight many contrasts between the two cultures. Statistics beg the question, could stricter gun control legislation make the U.S. a safer nation for its residents and visitors? Should the American public reconsider the traditional interpretation of the Second Amendment, or should this right continue to be maintained despite the associated tragedies in this nation and the damaged perception of the nation abroad?


 
 


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