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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012

Slain youth's parents persist in gun-control quest


NAGOYA — Although nearly 20 years have passed since Yoshihiro Hattori, a 16-year-old from Nagoya, was gunned down in Louisiana while on a student exchange program, his parents have persevered in their antigun efforts.

News photo
News photo
For the fallen: Yoshihiro Hattori, who was shot dead in the U.S., holds a fish in an undated photo provided by his parents. Top: Hattori's father, Masaichi, and mother, Mieko, look through photos of their son in Nagoya in August. KYODO

The killing sent shock waves across Japan, where many are ill-informed about the gun culture in the U.S. — considered by many to be the root cause of frequent indiscriminate killings.

In the two decades since Hattori's death, his parents have become staunch gun-control advocates, working to ensure their son's death was not in vain.

On Oct. 17, 1992, Hattori, on his way to a Halloween party in Baton Rouge with a friend, mistakenly approached the wrong house. The property owner, Rodney Peairs, apparently believing the two were trespassing with criminal intent, pointed a loaded .44-caliber Magnum revolver at Hattori and said, "Freeze." Either not knowing or misunderstanding the English word, Hattori walked toward him, prompting Peairs to fire his gun at point-blank range.

The case went to the Louisiana state court, which acquitted the then 31-year-old meat market manager the following year after a 12-member jury unanimously concluded he had acted in self-defense. Hattori's parents say Peairs has never personally apologized for the shooting.

For Hattori's parents, closure remains elusive.

His mother, Mieko, 64, reminisces about her son, who worked hard to adapt during his time in the U.S. His father, Masaichi, 65, said, "I still feel as though Yoshihiro is alive in America and will someday come back."

Mieko Hattori claims she holds no grudge against her son's killer. She believes the man to be a product of a family unaware of the serious hazards that come with gun ownership.

"He opened fire without ever thinking about what else he should do because of his upbringing and the gun culture of the United States," she said.

A year after the shooting, the Hattoris established the "Yoshi fund," named after their son, to show Americans how Japanese live safely in a society where firearms are strictly prohibited.

The fund invites U.S. students to Japan, where the Hattoris host them. The family welcomed its 20th American student this year.

They also arrange talks between their young American guest and students at his son's alma mater, Asahigaoka High School in Nagoya, every year to discuss the implications of their son's death.

The Hattoris hope their American guests might become a force for change in the U.S. through these experiences.

In November 1993, the Hattoris met President Bill Clinton in Washington, handing him part of some 1.7 million Japanese signatures calling for stricter gun control in the United States and asking the president to resolutely back their cause.

Later that month, Clinton signed into law the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which made it mandatory for gun dealers to conduct criminal background checks on their customers before selling firearms.

Since then, gun control in the U.S. has been dealt a series of setbacks — particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A recent spate of deadly shootings has also prompted many in the U.S. to consider purchasing firearms.

On a suggestion by Yoshihiro's former host family in the U.S., the Hattoris will visit Louisiana this week — their first visit in a decade — to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their son's death. Mieko Hattori is scheduled to deliver a speech there Saturday.

"We have followed developments in the United States for 20 years and the situation there remains inconceivable for Japanese," she said. "We want to give our moral support to those Americans who are campaigning for gun control."

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