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July 27, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Murder no cultural misunderstanding

September 23,1993

“Excuse me. Can I ask where are you from?” the woman standing next to me at the airport bus said. When I answered “Tenryu” and she didn’t appear to recognize the name, I added “in Shizuoka prefecture.” When that qualifying information drew no response but just the slightest smile, I realized what she meant. “Oh, where was I born? I’m American. I’m from New York City.”

“Oh, I’m on my way there. That’s where I’m flying today. I’ve been to America before, but this is my first trip to New York and I’m really excited.”

“Well, you should be,” I said, “it’s an exciting city.”

She asked if I could give her advice on where to go and what to see, but when it came out that she was really on her way to another East Coast destination, with just a two-day stop in NYC, I suggested she make the usual tourist rounds, because she wouldn’t have time to see much else of “the city that never sleeps”.

“And even if you don’t go anywhere,” I said, “New York City is so interesting you can just stand on the corner and look around and it will be fascinating.”

“But isn’t it dangerous?”

“Yes, I’m afraid it is,” but I told her that with caution and common sense she could expect to make it out of the city in 48 hours without incident. And that, statistically, she would not be in as much danger of being the victim of violent crime as the people who live there.

Choosing to sit together on the bus, our conversation stayed on the theme of violence in America, of which, of course, there is no shortage of reports in the news. When the killing of Yoshihiro Hattori in Louisiana came up, I said that it wasn’t only deplorable but heartbreaking. [Yoshihiro Hattori was a young exchange student. When he knocked on a neighborhood door at Halloween he failed to respond to the owner’s command to “Freeze!” and was shot dead.]

“I’m in an English conversation group of housewives, and our teacher is an American woman. After the death of Hattori we discussed it in the class and she said that it was as much Hattori’s fault as the man who shot him. She said it’s important to know another country’s culture when you’re living in it.”

Yes, I said. I’d heard that hollow thinking before, and I failed to see what gun possession had do with “culture”. The proliferation of guns that serve no other purpose than to kill and main people is not a matter of culture but a lethal aberration of American society.

“Then you don’t agree with her?”

“No.”

“We thought all Americans thought her way. She was so convincing in her argument that we all conceded she won, and never discussed the matter again.”

“Americans, as you can imagine, do not all think alike. I assure you that there are many Americans who would agree with your teacher, and just as many (more, in fact) who feel as I do — and who are grateful to the Hattori family for pressing for gun control in the U.S.”

“But perhaps you think like Japanese because you have been living in Japan so long.”

“I don’t think so. The loss of someone’s life by violence is a terrible thing — nationality doesn’t come into the picture. I was as upset over the killing of the young bank clerk Yuki Uchida as I was over the killing of Hattori. The kind of passport I carry has nothing to do with feeling sympathy for their grieving families.”

Glancing at the paper I hadn’t yet had a chance to read that morning, I was stunned when I saw the article about the murder of the young Japanese student in California.

“Yes, it’s so shocking,” the woman said, “I heard about it on the news last night. I am trying not to think about it since I’m on my way to America. My mother called and begged me not to go. She thinks everyone in the U.S. has a gun.”

Not everyone, but a lot of people. And the ones who don’t have easy access to them — ask any teenager.

Before saying goodbye, the woman told me she thought it was kind of President Clinton to call the Hattori family when he visited Japan for the summit.

Yes, I too thought it was a kind and thoughtful gesture. But I also thought that if the president were to try to telephone the bereaved and devastated families of all the victims of gun killings in the United States, he would be on the phone all day, every day.

And he’d have to call me.

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POSTSCRIPT

How’s that saying- go? … the more things change the more they stay the same …

Gun violence in America has continued unabated. I am not cynical, but I long ago realized that no massacre, no mounting numbers, no senseless murders, will wake up Americans to the insanity of a a gun-soaked society.

There is no need to cite recent highly-publicized killings. These made it onto the front pages of newspapers around the world. It is the daily, hourly, gun killings that should get our attention.

Has anyone noticed the number of paraplegic young people in wheelchairs in America?  Their spinal cords have been severed by bullets — perhaps in a schoolyard fight. Are you aware of the numbers of toddlers who’ve accidentally shot a sibling, or toddlers accidentally shot by parents?

And how easily the ‘conversation’ shifts from the real problem: America is a society armed to the teeth, and the easy availability of guns takes a toll that is an outrage. The talk now is about the “mentally ill” — as if they’re the ones responsible for all the carnage. The talk is about the need to “ban assault-style weapons”, as if the lethality of regular handguns don’t count. The talk is about criminals and gangs and evil-doers — without so much as a second thought about those people who go beserk (or just get mad, or settle an argument), who no one (before they killed) would have labeled a “criminal”. No, indeed neighbors can be quoted as saying “… he/she seemed so normal, the nicest person in the world, we would never imagine that he/she would hurt anyone …”

Just recently I heard an idiot (an American who sees no need for gun-control) on television proclaim “An armed society is a polite society.”

Japan might be one of the most polite societies in the world. I don’t know anyone here who has a gun. Do you?

__________________________________________

© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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