THE MOTIVE, APPARENTLY, WAS "carjacking"-a word that doesn't translate into Japanese because there is no such thing in Japan. Two Japanese students were shot and killed in the parking lot of a convenience store in a Los Angeles suburb. Last week police arrested two suspects, members of an L.A. gang. "It is nothing but regrettable," said Mieko Hattori. Her son Yoshihiro, a teenage Japanese exchange student, was shot to death by a homeowner in Baton Rouge, La., in 1992.
"Nothing but regrettable" is putting it mildly. The killings themselves were bad enough, but they also fueled a larger problem. In the increasingly tense relationship between Japan and the United States, Japan's souring view of America is becoming a critical fact. It may seem that a random murder in Los Angeles has no relation to the corrosive trade disputes, but it does. To many Japanese the constant U.S. pounding on trade contains an unmistakable message: in the way you organize your economy and your society, we want you to become more like us. U.S. trade negotiators ask for "openness, transparency, deregulation." But to a lot of Japanese, that sounds like a recipe for greater economic instability, with all the consequences that implies. And so each time another foreign national gets killed in the United States, the conviction of the average Japanese only grows stronger: we don't want to be like you.
U.S. officials are acutely aware of the psychological connection. Last week U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor was all set to trash Japan's latest proposal in the trade dispute, but first he felt obligated to express his remorse to the families of the two murdered students. Most Japanese are unsympathetic to complaints about their trade policies, in any case. But it is jarring for Japanese to hear senior U.S. officials apologize for the fact that yet another visitor got killed by yet another gun-toting American-and then have those officials go on to denounce the economic policies of a nation where there is virtually no violent crime, and where poverty and unemployment hardly exist. U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale clearly understands that. He held a press conference to say that the double murder was "the saddest day in my time here as ambassador" and refused to take questions on any other Japan-U. S. topic.
U.S. officials may think this is a good time to push the Japanese for trade concessions. Japan remains stuck in an economic slump, and Tokyo's sense of economic superiority has been blunted. For many Japanese who came of age after the war. the future has never seemed so uncertain. But the Japanese still believe that the cocoon of a country they created out of the devastation of World War II is probably the most successful nation on earth, and now more than ever their instincts are conservative. Not many of them want anything to do with Washington's prescriptions for their economy, because when they look at America they see unemployment and its attendant social ills. "You're like Typhoid Mary trying to cure the plague," one Japanese college student said last week.
The Los Angeles killings surprised no one in Japan. "It is indeed a pity that a great and good nation like America should have such an Achilles' heel," said the lead editorial of Mainichi Shimbun. The "great and good" part was a reflex. In Japan today it's a cliche to say that once, when America was the most magnanimous victor in the history of warfare, Japan had reason to respect and admire the United States. It's a country that was everything Japan wasn't (and isn't): wide open, laid back, cool. There was a fascination-now eroding fast-that drew droves of Japanese to America for school, work or just to soak up the culture. That's what attracted one of last week's victims, Takuma Ito, 19, who was studying filmmaking because he was inspired by Steven Spielberg. "He loved the U.S. and was so happy to be able to learn what he always wanted to learn," said his mother, Rumiko. But now Japan is learning a different lesson: America is a fatal attraction.