I walked into my freshman gym class the weekend before Halloween and learned that my classmate, a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student, had been killed for knocking on someone’s door. Yoshihiro Hattori, the class entertainment, was no more.
It was 1992 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and I was a mere 14 years old.
This year- 2022- marks the 30th anniversary of Yoshi‘s death at the hand of a mentally unstable man and his wife, two people who were terrified of someone knocking on their door. A man who used a loaded gun to deal with an unarmed foreigner who didn’t speak good English.
Yoshi was enigmatic and physically strong. He was the class entertainment. Despite his broken English, Yoshi was so likable. He was very gregarious and animated. One of his favorite tricks was to have a classmate sit on his back and do push-ups. We were amazed! None of the boys in our classes were that strong. Normally I wouldn’t have been in a class with Yoshi. He was two years older than me. But because it was a physical education class, our class had mixed ages. He was sweet, friendly, funny, and extroverted. He smiled a lot, even though he wasn’t smiling in this picture.
Dressed in a tuxedo, Yoshi was with his American host, Webb Haymaker. They were headed for a Halloween party, but they got turned around. This was before cell phones and GPS directions. They ended up at the wrong house, thinking it was the location of their costume party. It had multiple cars in the driveway and Halloween decorations.
The boys knocked on the door. A woman peered out of a side door and then slammed it. Rodney Peairs, the 30-year-old supermarket butcher, was told by his wife to “get the gun,” according to the story. Presumably, Rodney opened the door with a loaded gun. Yoshi said, “We are here for the party! We are here for the party!” Rodney yelled “Freeze!” Yoshi didn’t stop moving at the sight of Rodney’s gun and was shot in the chest. Rodney was using a particularly lethal bullet that made it impossible for Yoshi to survive the gunshot.
Guns are not a part of Japanese culture. I can only imagine Yoshi’s confusion and why he made the mistake. Maybe he thought he was at the right house for the Halloween party and it was part of the act. He surely did not understand the deadly situation he was facing- a man holding a gun and yelling “Freeze.”
It is so heartbreaking for me to think that this boy, just an innocent, bright-eyed kid from Japan in a foreign country, who didn’t even speak the language, could get gunned down by a reckless man for doing nothing. Nothing except knocking on the wrong door.
As a 14-year-old, the full weight of Yoshi’s wrongful killing didn’t sink in. It was just my friend who never showed back up to class. It was like he had a long absence. Our school didn’t have a formal recognition of his death. I didn’t go to a funeral. I moved on with my teenage life of new friends, a boyfriend, and classwork.
The Baton Rouge community was horrified. The Japanese community was horrified. The world was horrified. My mother, Dr. Julie Nelson, PhD, leapt into action in the wake of Yoshi’s death and for that, I am forever grateful. She spearheaded a project to plant daffodils behind the Baton Rouge Capital Building in Yoshi’s honor. Florists all over the city donated bags of daffodil bulbs for Yoshi’s daffodil garden. She told me that they all commented on how crazy it was for Rodney to have shot and killed Yoshi. She also wrote a legislative bill for gun control education, requiring a minimum amount of training in order to own a gun. She said recently, “I was naive to think that would ever pass in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”
The Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge was instrumental in the community grieving of this tragedy. Yoshi’s parents, Masa and Mieko, launched an amazing activism campaign for gun control in the United States. Yoshi’s American host parents, Holley and Dick Haymaker, were also involved in campaigns to end gun violence in the United States.
How could this happen? Are Americans monsters who shoot down innocent visitors to our country? It seems so and I bet outsiders assume the same about us sometimes.
If Yoshi had been a white American boy, he might have survived. Yoshi’s death was a result of gun violence and prejudice- but that’s not all. I think the cultural difference and the language barrier made Yoshi more vulnerable to this tragic act of gun violence.
Let’s not forget fear. The Peairs family was scared. Yoshi was completely harmless but their fear culminated in using a loaded gun to deal with an unarmed person. In my research, I learned that the Piearses had an infant in the house the night of Yoshi’s homicide. That can make parents think and do paranoid and irrational things. And Baton Rouge, Louisiana was not a particularly safe place in 1992. Violent crime, poverty, and poor education were rampant. In the mid-1990s, Baton Rouge’s closest major city, New Orleans, was deemed “America’s deadliest city.” Baton Rouge didn’t come too far behind New Orleans in its ranking either. One 1994 list of crime-ridden cities across the US listed Baton Rouge as number eight. Even our high school was “rough.” It was an inner city school with a majority disadvantaged student population. There were violence and misbehaviors the staff couldn’t control at our high school, though most were minor.
I do not presume to know the answers about gun control. However, it is painfully clear that we have serious problems with gun violence in our country that other countries don’t complain of. From Yoshi’s death, to school shootings, to murders, and even gang shootings that kill innocent bystanders, it must stop.
I have lived in the southeastern United States for my whole life. Guns are part of life. In rural areas, everyone uses guns for hunting and protection. It’s a source of pride for many men. I have grown up with stories of extreme caution about guns. Stories of accidental killings of loved ones. Violent crimes committed using guns. It pains me to think that Yoshi, who didn’t have that upbringing, who didn’t know the English language, was at an extra disadvantage when facing the danger that lurked on the other side of that door.
As if the outcome of a dead teenager who went to the wrong house wasn’t painful enough, Rodney Peairs was allowed to go free. His choice to kill an unarmed 16-year-old was considered an act of self-defense. It was said that his defense painted him as “everyone’s next-door neighbor.” I don’t have any neighbor that would shoot someone for knocking, nor would I want one!
Read here for the full story, legal proceedings, and gun control activism that was sparked by Yoshi’s death. It is hard for me to understand how someone can kill an innocent human being and not be dealt a punishment of equal magnitude. Perhaps our lenience with gun violence perpetuates our problems.
While I moved on with my life, Yoshi’s homicide always lived quietly in my unconscious. I love Halloween, but the fears of an armed and reckless neighbor made me second-guess knocking. I thought about Yoshi when I knocked on a stranger’s door. When I stepped on someone’s property, I knew there could be deadly risks. Yoshi has been with me all these years as a warning that things aren’t as calm and peaceful and safe as they may seem.
But this year, around Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos (a holiday that honors the dead), Yoshi’s memory stood up strong and vivid in my mind’s eye. I could see him clearly, talking with me on the track at high school, making jokes. The injustice and horror of his killing was suddenly oppressive. Now that I’m middle-aged and a mother, I understand the full depth and gravity of this tragedy. Yoshi would have been 46 years old. I understand that his dreams were never realized, that his life was taken from him far too early, that he didn’t have a chance to fall in love, to have children. He couldn’t realize and conquer the athletic feats he would surely have conquered. He couldn’t excel in his career and make the world a better place. His life and all of its sweet opportunities were stolen from him.
On Halloween 2022, 30 years later, I remembered Yoshi Hattori.
I have been grieving Yoshi’s death since then, as if it all had just happened. I looked up his family and friends on Facebook. I found his mother and father: immediately I knew I had the right couple. Yoshi’s father looked just like him! I reached out to Webb, the boy who was Yoshi’s host and who was there at the scene of the killing.
I recalled the best poem I knew of about death and loss, Merit Malloy’s Epitaph, often read at Jewish mourning rituals. It reminds me how to keep Yoshi’s memory alive. I want to rejoice in his talents and remember what I learned from him. When I want to do something grand and physically impressive, I’ll do it for Yoshi. When my little six-year-old daughter shows great energy and physical ability, I’ll give her a hug for Yoshi.
“When I die
Give what’s left of me away
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you
And when you need me,
Put your arms
And give to them
What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something,
Look for me
In the people I’ve known
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.
You can love me most
Hands touch hands
Bodies touch bodies
And by letting go
That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die,
So, when all that’s left of me
Give me away”
Scholarships in Yoshi’s honor include the AFS Exchange Yoshi Hattori Memorial Scholarship and the Carleton College Yoshihiro Hattori Memorial Fund.
There is so much progress to make on gun violence in the United States. I wish Yoshi’s life had not been a cost of that progress but maybe this was the way that he (and those that loved and cared for him) made the world a better place for everyone else.
Thank you, Yoshi. We remember you always.
Cass Nelson-Dooley, MS, is a researcher, author, educator, and laboratory consultant. She studied medicinal plants in the rain forests of Panama as a Fulbright Scholar and then launched a career in science and natural medicine. Early on, she studied ethnobotany, ethnopharmacology, and drug discovery at the University of Georgia and AptoTec, Inc. She joined innovators at Metametrix Clinical Laboratory as a medical education consultant helping clinicians use integrative and functional laboratory results in clinical practice. She owns Health First Consulting, LLC, a medical communications company with the mission to improve human health using the written word. Ms. Nelson-Dooley is an oral microbiome expert and author of Heal Your Oral Microbiome. She was a contributing author in Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine and Case Studies in Integrative and Functional Medicine. She has published case studies, book chapters, and journal articles about the oral microbiome, natural medicine, nutrition, laboratory testing, obesity, and osteoporosis.