THE acquittal by an American jury of a Louisiana man who shot and killed a Japanese student has drawn a widespread, self-comforting reaction among the Japanese: "Yes, we really are a different people."
While crime has risen in Japan, including the use of guns, the shooting of 16-year-old Yoshihiro Hattori last October in Baton Rouge, La., and the acquittal last Sunday of the gunman, Rodney Peairs, has been portrayed in Japanese media as a stark contrast of the two societies.
"The Japanese have a fear of other races, and it's become more real as more foreigners come to this country and more Japanese travel abroad. This incident reinforces the message: watch out for foreigners," says Nori Kashiwaya, a Japanese sociologist with an advanced degree from Cornell University.
The 12-person jury in a Louisiana courtroom accepted Mr. Peairs's claim that he mistook Hattori as an intruder into his home and shot him with a .44 Magnum pistol from his doorway in self-defense. But the young exchange student had the wrong address for a Halloween party and failed to understand the gunman's English when he yelled "freeze" to the boy.
When the killing was first reported on Japanese television last fall, viewers were advised of the necessity to better understand American idioms such as "freeze" when they travel. Only later did Japanese media begin to focus on how the lack of gun control in the US has raised the level of violence.
"There was deep sorrow over a boy who was a victim because he couldn't understand enough English to understand the command," says Mr. Kashiwaya.
The circumstances of the killing have reinforced Japan's image of the United States as a gun-toting society whose judicial system tolerates a loose definition of self-defense. "The trial did a good deal to expose the true nature of guns in American society," the victim's mother, Mieko Hattori, wrote to Mainichi newspaper.
IN contrast to the US, Japan outlaws gun ownership and gun-deaths are a rarity. That image of a safe Japan, however, has been tarnished recently as the Japanese underground, the yakuza, has imported more guns. And a former leading politician, Shin Kanemaru, was shot at by an assailant in 1991, while another gunman was caught last year trying to enter the home of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.
"It is disgusting that we should continue to take for granted a gun dependency in the US," stated a Yomiuri newspaper editorial. "But the Japanese should also not be indifferent to the fact that crimes in which guns are used are increasing in this country."
Some Japanese media reported that the Louisiana verdict was widely welcomed by Americans who defend the right to shoot intruders. Others noted that gun ownership was common in Peairs's working-class neighborhood and that Louisiana law is particularly lenient in defining self-defense.
Masao Horibe, professor of American law at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo warned Japanese to remember that Japan and the US are different, and that Japanese should not try to maintain their life-style while living abroad or else risk running into trouble. Another commentator, Kaname Saury, professor of American history at Tokyo Women's Christian University, noted that the verdict shows that the US, being only 200 years old, is still partly a developing country.
"Japanese will become more cautious in traveling to the US," says Kashiwaya. "Parents will think twice about sending their children overseas to study."
The victim's mother has collected 1.6 million signatures in Japan asking for gun control in the US. She hopes to collect 2 million by the time of her son's birthday on Nov. 22 and present them to President Clinton. The date is the same as the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963.