The #LARiots of 1992–The View From Japan


I was living in Japan when riots broke out in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992.   Almost a year later, there was another violent event that occurred in the United States, namely, the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993.   The Japanese reacted quite differently to these violent events, and this weekend’s commemoration of the events that occurred 20 years ago has made me recall all of this.

There was news in Japan about what were termed the “race riots”, and a lot of my Japanese colleagues at Mitsubishi Motors were asking about how I felt about what was going on, whether the riots would spread to other cities, etc.   I told them that the event that it reminded me of the most was the five-day Watts riots from August 11-15, 1965.   I was only a child at the time, but I remember my parents discussing the event.

Later on in life, during my history class while taking Asian Studies in graduate school at the University of Illinois, I read about race riots in Japan that occurred between World War I and II.   I remember interesting classroom discussions about the relationship that these riots had to the rightward drift of Japanese politics in the interwar period.  Now there is a book by Rick Perlstein called Nixonland about the origins of the rightward drift in American politics after the 1960s, and the incident the book starts out with is … the Watts riots of 1965.

About one year later after the LA Riots, on April 19, 1993, I was listening to news from the US over Armed Forces radio about the story of the tragic ending to the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.  There is a direct line between the Waco incident and Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.   That bombing was widely reported on in Japan, of course, but the Waco Siege back in 1993 received very little coverage.

Later on I wondered about the difference between the prominent coverage of the LA race riots of 1992 and the sparse coverage of the Waco Siege of 1993.   I asked several Japanese colleagues about this at the time, and after much thought, they said that it was because the Japanese people could comprehend the race riots given their own history, but the story about a suicidal religious cult was something that didn’t show up on the Japanese cultural radar screen.   They understood that there were foreigners who might be religious fanatics to the point of being homicidal, but it seemed them almost “un-Japanese” for someone to get so worked up about religion that they would kill for it.

The sarin gas attack called the “Subway Sarin Incident” on the Tokyo subway perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult on March 20, 1995 changed the perception of the Japanese forever with regards to the possibility of the connections between religion and terrorism in Japan.

But back in 1993, it was something that the Japanese could not relate to as much as the race riots in LA, and that was the reason for the differing coverage by the media.   I learned a lot during my five-year stay in Japan from 1990-1995, about race, religion, and the different ways they were perceived in Japan and the US, namely, that our culture is the filter through which we view the news of the world.

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One Response

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