I wanted to touch on this story as a tangent to the greater current issue of press unreliability and the distortion of truth. It came up in a conversation I was having today having to do with how the view of our world is skewed through the reportage of the mass media. In “Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore pointed out how U.S. television overplayed images of black criminals and underplayed white ones. A current version of that in Japan is the kind of crimes committed by members of the U.S. armed forces based here, and how they are amplified in the press–things like a pizza delivery guy getting pelted by a toy plastic pellet gun wielded by someone on an Okinawan base–hardly news, but it gets national coverage because the perp was from a U.S. base.
What might have been the definitive example for Japan-U.S. media distortion, however, was the case of Yoshi Hattori, the young Japanese exchange student shot to death by Rodney Peairs. When it occurred, I was a student at San Francisco State University, and wanting to get the straight details on the case, I accessed the college’s LexisNexis account, and found court transcripts and other records which told a much different story than I’d heard popularly–and which put the incident in a completely different light than how it was represented in the press.
When I ask people to recall how young Hattori got shot, the general recollection was that Hattori went to the wrong address, was met by an aggressive, paranoid homeowner who raised a gun and yelled “freeze”; that Hattori thought he said, “please,” and walked towards him, and then he got shot. That is the general story that was released in the media, and if you do a search on the story on the web, you will find that even today, the story persists.
But it is far from the truth. Vital facts were left out; the story was abbreviated, and was not told from all perspectives. Here’s what I was able to piece together so many years ago from the materials I found.
First off, you should be made aware of two important facts that contribute to a completely new understanding of the case, facts which make the incident and some of its indirect causes far more clear. The greater of these two revelations was that Hattori wore contact lenses, but not on that night: he had lost one lens, and so went without. In other words, his eyesight was impaired. One would think this a fact of great importance to the case, but the press did not touch on it at all. The second fact was the friendly, almost puppylike nature of Hattori himself: when he saw his friends, he had a tendency to run up to them in greeting. This comes into play later as well. You should also know that Peairs’ neighborhood was a high-crime area; that police response time was around 30 minutes (indeed, the ambulance that came for Hattori took that long to arrive). This contributes to Peairs’ state of mind about whether he should handle the matter himself, or wait for law enforcement to arrive.
Here’s what occurred that night, October 17, 1992. Hattori and Haymaker, on their way to a Halloween party, unknowingly arrived at the wrong address (two numbers in the address had been transposed). They walked up to the house and knocked (rang?) at the front door. Mrs. Peairs did not answer immediately because she was putting the kids to bed. She wondered who was at the door that late in the evening, in that neighborhood, with no visitors expected. By the time she got to the front door, no one was there. Hattori and Haymaker, wondering why their friends did not answer, had decided to try the carport door.
Now, a carport is like an open garage, and the door for it is not as “public” as the front door. In terms of personal space and perception, the carport door is somewhat more of an “inside” door, a door strangers do not come to. It is similar to a stranger coming to your side or back door at night–it makes you feel a little insecure. The two boys thought it was OK because they believed it was a friend’s house. But when Mrs. Peairs, just having opened the front door to no one, heard the knocking at the carport door, it was far more worrying to her. She went to the carport door to see who it was.
However, by the time she got there, the boys, again wondering at the delay, had moved away from the door. When she opened the door, Hattori reacted as he did when he greeted new friends: he ran to the door to greet them. From the perspective of Mrs. Peairs, however, this was an entirely different event. She opened a private door to her home, saw two young men–one dressed as a bloody accident victim, the other as a disco star–and suddenly one of them ran at her. Her understanding of context–night in a high crime area, nobody expected, putting the kids to bed, strange youths who ditched the front door and came to an inside door–this made Hattori’s playful greeting run appear frightening. So she freaked out. She slammed the door, ran to her husband, and told him strange young men were at the carport door, and one ran at her, so get the gun!
It is important in understanding what Rodney Peairs did to know that Peairs did not answer the door originally, had not seen what had happened, and did not lay eyes on either boy until he stepped out into the carport with his gun. He entered the situation knowing only what his wife had told him: that strange youths had come to the carport door and one had rushed at her. This left no room for doubt in his mind; he could not possibly know it was a friendly exchange student. Rather, his understanding of the local context along with his wife’s frantic explanation and plea gave him only one clear understanding: young punks outside were threatening his family. Angry and perhaps afraid, he got his gun and went to the carport door.
And here was the critical error, the one that, more than anything else, caused the tragedy to occur–at least the only knowing error: Peairs went out into the carport. What he should have done was to make sure no one had come inside, locked all the doors and windows, called for the police, and waited inside with his gun, using it only if someone tried to enter. Going out and confronting thugs may be in accord with the macho code, but it is tactically unsound and generally unwise.
So Peairs stepped out, expecting that he was dealing with some kind of criminal element in his carport. By this time, Haymaker and Hattori had moved out beyond the parked cars in the carport; Haymaker was trying to explain to Hattori his suspicion that they were at the wrong house; Hattori still hadn’t gotten the idea somehow. Then they heard Peairs call out to them, and say “Freeze!” Peairs raised the gun in plain sight.
Here’s where the missing contact lenses came into play. Most people wonder, even if he didn’t understand “freeze,” why Hattori didn’t see the gun. The missing contacts were why. He couldn’t see. To Hattori, a friend had walked out, and Hattori rushed to greet him. But in Peairs’ context, a clear warning had been given, and a gun had been displayed in plain sight. And yet, one of the young thugs he perceived in his driveway started to run right at him, holding some dark metallic object (it was a camera) in his hand. To Peairs, it could not have been more clear at the time. He fired his gun, and Hattori soon died.
Knowing the whole story makes a difference. With all of these facts stated, the Peairs’ actions are far more understandable. There was still a tragic error and the fault was Mr. Peairs’, but one can see now that Peairs was not the violent, paranoid gun nut he was made out to be in the press. Context and perspective are crucial for a clear view. The public, especially in Japan, was outraged when Peairs was cleared of wrongdoing in criminal court; if one knew the true story, one would not be surprised at all. Although Peairs made the error of stepping outside and was ultimately responsible for Hattori’s death, what he did was within the law, especially under Louisiana’s “shoot the burglar” statute.
Returning to the thesis of this entry, the distortion by the press was obviously a factual one, but also there was the element of degree: the Hattori story remained in the press for years, and for the first 18 months, Japanese papers ran stories on it several times every week. But, like the stories about U.S. military personnel in Okinawa, the story was run way out of proportion to its actual importance.
One day’s second-page layout in the Daily Yomiuri exemplified the imbalance in ironic splendor. I saw it fully a year and two months after the Hattori incident, with Yoshi stories still running regularly. There was a 6-inch article on the continuing Hattori saga, about a planned film project called “The Boy Who Loved America”–talk about your bitterly ironic titles. But right next to it was a 2-inch piece about a death that had occurred just the day before. Somewhere in the Kansai region, a hunter had accidentally shot and killed a 62-year-old woman who was in the hills looking for wild vegetables to use during the New Year’s holidays. The story, though fresh, ran just for that one day, and only got those two inches.
Reading these two articles together, it occurred to me that the Kansai story was in many ways identical to the Hattori story. A man, legally owning a gun and using it for legally allowed purposes (hunting, defending one’s home), mistakes an innocent, on a holiday outing, for an acceptable target, shoots and kills them. The Kansai killing took place in a country where guns are as rare as gun deaths–and yet the incident barely made a ripple in the press. But the Hattori case, already more than a year old, demanded a story three times the length of the new story.
This is not what one could call “balanced reporting.” But then, this is my contention: that the media does not balance, despite their claims to do so. They print what sells. They cater to stereotypes, reinforcing them.
Don’t trust what you read. Don’t trust that you’re hearing all the pertinent facts or perspectives. Don’t trust that anything is presented in proportion.
So how do we get the big picture? We don’t, and that’s what is important to realize: in this information age, we expect that it is possible to get all the facts, but it never is. When you regard an issue, keep in mind that you do not and will never know the whole story. Most people forget this and believe their conviction to be a virtue.