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U.S. Rushes to Reassure Japan After Carjacking

March 29, 1994|SUSAN MOFFAT and JESUS SANCHEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As the weekend slayings of two Marymount College students sent shock waves through Japan and Japanese American communities, U.S. dignitaries rushed Monday to reassure frantic parents and to counter charges in the Japanese media that Southern California is a gun-infested danger zone.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said the U.S. government is very concerned that the carjacking killings of Takuma Ito and Go Matsuura, both 19, will create "a very distorted and one-sided view of the United States abroad."

President Clinton expressed condolences to Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa during a telephone conversation about Japan's new economic plan.

In Orange County, Gov. Pete Wilson called on the state Legislature to impose the death penalty on those who commit murder during a carjacking.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan called a newsconference in Los Angeles with the Japanese consul general, Seiichiro Noboru, hoping to assuage the alarm of tourism officials in Japan.

"Los Angeles is not a place where this or any other type of violence should be tolerated," Riordan said, vowing not to rest as mayor "until Los Angeles is safe."

And Noboru refrained from making generalizations about violence in the United States, promising instead that the incident "should not and will not have any effect upon the friendly relationship between this country and Japan (or) . . . change the love of the Japanese people toward sunny and warm Southern California."

But those promises faced an uphill battle against a growing impression in Japan that the United States is a dangerous and violent society that, unlike Japan, has done little to control the use and ownership of guns.

"Gun Society . . . Another Tragedy in Los Angeles," trumpeted one headline in the newspaper Sankei Sports. "For a Car?" Added an editorial in the Japan Times: "A beginning must be made to combat the American gun culture, which is getting out of control."

The Mainichi Shimbun headlined its story, "One More Nightmare in the Gun Society." The Asahi Shimbun commented on its front page: "Isn't it strange that in the country that leads the civilized world, you never know where or when somebody will be shot?"

Ito, a Japanese citizen, and Matsuura, who was born in the United States but grew up in Japan, were shot in the head Friday night during a carjacking in the parking lot of a San Pedro supermarket. The two teen-agers died Sunday after being taken off life-support systems at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. Police--who remained close-mouthed about the case--recovered the white 1994 Honda Civic on Sunday not far from the scene of the crime.

Meanwhile, Japanese students in Southern California reported that parents have been calling frantically from abroad, hoping to persuade their children to return home.

More than 3 million Japanese tourists and students visit the United States each year, about one in six of them bound for Los Angeles County. At Santa Monica College, there are 600 Japanese students--more than any other foreign nationality.

Aside from the damage the slayings could do to Los Angeles' international reputation, officials said, the deaths could cause financial repercussions. Some smaller colleges have become increasingly dependent on Japanese enrollment, and even before the killings, many students had trouble convincing their parents that the United States--and Los Angeles in particular--was a safe place to attend school.

Such concerns have helped dampen the flow of students from Japan to the United States in recent years, although the slumping Japanese economy and the increasing popularity of European destinations have also been factors.

The number of Japanese students in the United States jumped from 17,000 in 1983 to a peak of nearly 58,000 in 1990, aided by the strong yen, but slipped to about 40,000 last year, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles-area tourism officials expressed concerns about the impact the slayings will have on the flow of nearly 500,000 Japanese who visit Los Angeles County annually.

"The Japanese tourist market is much more volatile and problematic than most," said Stanley Plog, a travel and tourism research specialist.

"There have been no cancellations, but I think it will affect tourism, not dramatically or immediately, but gradually," said Shiro Monden, the Los Angeles general manager of Japan Travel Bureau International, a large Japanese tour operator that sends about 100,000 customers a year to Southern California.

The killings in Los Angeles, which have sparked outrage locally and abroad and which have been widely covered by the Japanese news media, have fed a longstanding Japanese perception that the United States is a dangerous place. Shooting deaths of Japanese students in Baton Rouge, La., in 1992 and in Northern California in 1993 were covered by the Japanese press as continuing evidence of the ruthlessness of America's "gun society."

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