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Country of sudden death


The foreign exchange visit, lasting a few weeks to a year, is a wonderful experience for most high school students fortunate enough to make one. They see a culture not their own, make new friends they could never have imagined, and learn something of the world hands-on. But how many families would send cherished children to a country of grave peril, where strangers might kill them over a small misunderstanding, where violence comes explosively when least expected?

That is the question Japanese parents are asking, after Yoshihiro Hattori, 16, was shot to death in Baton Rouge, La., while trying to find a Halloween costume party to which he had been invited. Yoshi, to use his nickname, was dressed in a white tuxedo, and with his young American host knocked on a door and apparently frightened the woman of the house, who called her husband. By one account they were knocking on a second, side door, and by another were already leaving, when homeowner Rodney Peairs appeared with a .44 caliber Magnum pistol and shouted "Freeze!"

Yoshi's grasp of idiomatic English was not good. To people learning English as a foreign language, "Freeze!" means to turn water into ice. He stepped forward. Mr. Peairs shot him dead. Mr. Peairs was questioned by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Department and not charged, though evidence was to be presented to a grand jury. Japan sent 3,161 high school students to study in the United States in 1990, and 15,346 students for briefer stays in Americans' homes. How many will come in 1993? The incident is a major news story in Japan, where even violent gangsters normally lack guns.

Of course, every country that sends tourists to the U.S. (four million Japanese a year) has tales of muggings, street robberies, unsavory encounters, stumbles into street violence in the wrong neighborhood. This one is different. It was the right neighborhood. Apparently, the slayer was, in his own mind, defending his home against some frightening intruder, using his gun in a way many Americans think proper. This -- and the failure of police to place immediate charges -- is what so shocks the Japanese.

Is this what Americans have become in the eyes of others? And if so, is the picture justified? Is this the risk a foreign visitor should accept? The foreign exchange visit should be the highlight of a young life. And the United States should be one of the countries where responsible parents serenely send their children. If it isn't, something is terribly wrong, and this incident ought to be a really big story in the United States.

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