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'Junko Owaki. An American girl who happened to be born in Japan.' : Girl Pays With Her Life to Taste Freedom in U.S.

July 06, 1986|LISA LEVITT RYCKMAN | Associated Press

FREMONT, Calif. — Families growing up in this city of families used to count the years summer to summer, holiday to holiday, birthday to birthday.

That was before Junko Owaki. Now, some mark time from the date the sweet-faced Japanese girl first arrived to the day she disappeared, from the day her mutilated body was found to the day two teen-agers were charged in her death. On Monday, their defense attorneys will request a witness gag order. Their preliminary hearing is set for July 30.

The brief, intense Americanization of Japanese exchange student Junko Owaki ended in a rainy-night murder that made headlines in Japan and shook the sturdy foundations of this city of 132,000.

Her story is one of assimilation gone awry, of a shy Japanese girl eagerly emerging from her cultural cocoon a sort of fragile American butterfly, living freely, trusting openly, dying violently.

"Junko Owaki," she had doodled in a notebook that Hal Cole found in her desk. "An American girl who happened to be born in Japan."

One of three children born to a doctor and an artist, Junko arrived from her native Tokyo to live with Hal and Char Cole and their two teen-age sons in 1984. Char Cole remembers how they picked her out of the airport crowd in her jeans and red high-top sneakers, how she looked up at them, big brown eyes through bangs, and said, "My name is Junko. In America, please call me Jane."

Friendly, Outgoing, Eager

The Coles, who had been host family to earlier exchange students, were delighted by the friendliness of their new charge, but they knew from experience the difficulties young Japanese have adjusting to American life. On the one hand, they are used to mobility, moving freely and fearlessly on Tokyo's excellent public transportation, a luxury foreign to Fremont's suburban sprawl. At the same time, they are accustomed to having adults plan their lives.

"Their maturation levels are really different than our kids'. They're a couple of years behind, especially the girls," Char Cole said. "They're not allowed to make any decisions for themselves at all."

But the outgoing Junko was eager to make choices, and she fit well into the close-knit Cole family. She called the Coles Mom and Dad. The family, including sons Lance, 15, and Scott, 14, took frequent trips; color photos show a smiling Junko at Disneyland and at half a dozen other amusement parks.

She became involved in church youth groups, played drums alongside Scott in the Irvington High School band and worked hard at her studies and her art--painting, sketching and ceramics.

"When she came, she was rather shy, anxious to learn about America, anxious to fit in, to be successful in her language and her classes," said Dr. Dan Meyer, her counselor at Irvington, where she earned A's and Bs. As success came and her self-confidence grew, so did her love for all things American. Candy and junk food became a passion; Junko once ate so much ice cream that she became sick, and she was thrilled by a case of peanut M&M's the Coles gave her for Christmas.

Her real addiction, though, was to sweet freedom. The more she tasted, the more she craved.

"She was a free spirit," said John Landers, a teacher at a neighboring high school who later rented a room to Junko. "She loved it here. I'm sure she intended to stay."

Japanese youth "see America as representing freedom," said Shelley Hyde, assistant director of the Cultural Homestay Institute, which sponsored Junko's visit the first year.

"Everything's so big, and that means freedom to them because they're used to such a confining life style," she said. "But sometimes, they think they can come here and be totally free to do whatever they want without realizing that most of the time, the only freedom you have is through a level of responsibility."

In her year with them, the Coles refused to let her buy a car or to date out of a sense of responsibility to her parents, and they were disturbed by some of the changes they saw in her.

"Toward the end of the time she was here, she was a little rebellious, she would do a little talking back and stuff she had never done," Cole said. "It was kind of normal for an American kid, but it was out of place for her. I felt she was too independent."

Her independence showed on her hands: nail polish--green, purple and finally black; rings on every finger. When she returned to Tokyo after the school year, her hair was permed and she wore three earrings in each ear. She turned 18 that summer, and she made plans to return to Fremont on her own and graduate from Irvington.

Difficulties With Reality

"The magic of being 18 and a senior--it's cars, it's not having to do what you're told," Char Cole said. "I have a sense she was just excited about being free. . . . I think she had a hard time putting together what she dreamed it was going to be like and the reality of the situation."

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