There is certainty about the basic facts of the case: A large group of American university band members, in Japan to perform at a football game halftime, went on a shoplifting binge in a Tokyo shopping area last week and stole thousands of dollars’ worth of electronics.
Later reports said the shopkeepers were stunned by the brazenness of the thieves from Texas Southern University’s Ocean of Soul Marching Band, who reportedly picked up compact disc players, tape recorders, pocket televisions and video game software and dropped them into their shopping bags and coat pockets before walking out of stores. They committed the thefts on Dec. 7, the day after they marched at halftime in a game between the University of Nebraska and Kansas State.
News of the incident was played down by the Houston university for more than a week, during which the thievery was called first an incident of “misconduct.” Later, the university explained that “some small items had been taken from merchants but were subsequently returned.”
All that changed on Tuesday, when Japanese newspapers and television news stations reported the spree, embarrassing the all-black university, forcing it to acknowledge the thefts and causing the school’s president and others to suggest that the already negative Japanese view of blacks had been further eroded.
On Tuesday afternoon, William H. Harris, the university president, issued a statement in which he said the students involved “have brought a great dishonor” to the school and said punishment could range from reprimand to dismissal.
He conceded that as many as 28 members of the 120-member band may have participated in the spree, which occurred in the Tokyo business district known as Akihabara, Japan’s electronics bazaar.
“It reinforces all Japanese prejudices against blacks,” said Frank Gibney, president of the Santa Barbara-based Pacific Basin Institute and a well-known Japan scholar. “It also reinforces the view in Japan that Americans are getting more desperate and lawless. This one takes the cake.”
Gibney’s view was echoed Tuesday by students at TSU.
“They just screwed it up for the rest of us,” said Carla Ferguson, 20, a junior majoring in health administration. “It makes the band look bad, the school look bad and our race look bad. You don’t go all the way to another country and start stealing things.”
One ironic twist was that on the day the shoplifting occurred, several Japanese politicians were trying to atone for previous slurs about foreigners.
Seiroku Kajiyama, secretary general of the Liberal Democrats, professed his shame at making a statement in 1990 comparing blacks to prostitutes in Japan.
In the version of the story that broke Tuesday in the Japanese press, shopkeepers saw the TSU students stealing goods from their stores, where items had no anti-theft devices because shoplifting is so rare. They gave chase and, eventually, police boarded the band’s buses and told the students they would not be allowed to leave for the airport until the pilfered goods were returned.
Kazuo Kawamura, a detective, said that more than 100 items were placed on the aisles of the buses and that the value put on them was $18,500, with another $3,500 worth not recovered. In all, he said, 119 items were reported stolen.
Harris disputed the number and value of the stolen goods, though he could not provide his own figures.
“One or two started to take stuff and then it snowballed,” he said.
Kennedy reported from Houston and Helm reported from Tokyo.