Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the death of a Japanese woman, Hanako Abe, in San Francisco, a case that sparked a movement to recall a district attorney and rekindled debate about criminal justice policy in the United States.

* * *

SAN FRANCISCO--Hanako Abe was supposed to meet with her friend Ayumi Asayama on New Year’s Eve in 2020.

Hanako was living in San Francisco, and dusk was approaching the South of Market district at the center of the city.

The area is lined with high-rise apartments occupied mainly by young people working for IT companies. 

The previous day, the two friends had made arrangements to exchange food outside of Hanako’s apartment in the district.

“I’ll make a cheesecake and bring it to you,” Hanako, then 27, said in a message.

Asayama said over the phone that she bought soba noodles for New Year’s Eve and would give them to Hanako.

The two became acquainted in San Francisco about two years previously through an acquaintance and met up once a month. But such meetings became rare after the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Concern about infections was the reason they decided to meet outside Hanako’s apartment.
Shortly after 5 p.m., Asayama sent a message to Hanako to say she had arrived.

Hanako usually responded to messages right away, but Asayama waited for about 30 minutes and still received no reply.

“It’s getting late, so I will go home,” Asayama said in a message to Hanako.

Hanako had gone out to buy some cheese for her cheesecake.

Around 4 p.m. on that day, a car ran through a red light, collided with another vehicle and then struck two women, according to the San Francisco Police Department.

The intersection was about a three-minute walk from Hanako’s apartment.

Elizabeth Platt, 60, died instantly.

The impact from the speeding car threw the other woman, Hanako, about 40 meters away, according to sources. She was taken to a hospital but was later confirmed dead.

The driver fled the scene and tried to hide in a nearby building. He was caught by police and arrested.

He was identified as Troy McAlister, then 45, a resident of the city who had been released on parole eight months before the deadly incident.

After allegedly robbing a restaurant about 600 meters from the intersection, McAlister hit the two women while speeding in a stolen car, police said.

A gun and drugs were found in the car.


“Hana-chan ...”

On New Year’s Day 2021, an acquaintance of Hanako contacted her mother, Hiroko Abe, 64, who lives in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture. The acquaintance sobbed and told Hiroko that Hanako was in a car accident.

When Hanako was in her second year of high school, she went to Britain for short-term language training. When she saw flight attendants speaking multiple languages, she said, “I want to be like that.”

During her high school days in her hometown of Koriyama, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, forcing Hanako to stay at an evacuation center in Aizu-Wakamatsu city, also in Fuskushima Prefecture.

She managed to graduate from high school in the month of the disaster, March 2011, and she went to college in Kentucky.

Due to soaring tuition fees, the annual number of Japanese students studying in the United States declined from more than 40,000 in the 1990s to less than 20,000 before the pandemic.

Hanako flew to the United States amid this trend.

Although she received a scholarship, life was not easy, and her mother had to send money.

Hanako told Hiroko, “I want to study computer science and survive in the United States.”

She transferred to a state university in Arkansas where the tuition was less expensive.

After graduating, she landed a job as an engineer at a real estate company and started working in San Francisco in 2018.

The city has some of the highest housing rents in the United States, and it is said that “people with annual salaries under $120,000 are low income” in San Francisco.

Hanako shared an apartment with a roommate and cooked for herself to reduce expenses.


After New Year’s Day in 2021, Hiroko made preparations to go to the site where her daughter was fatally struck by the car.

Before heading to the United States, Hiroko spoke with Chesa Boudin, district attorney (DA) of San Francisco, in a Zoom conference. Current U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was once elected as district attorney of San Francisco, too.

In the U.S. judicial system, federal prosecutors are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate.

Separately, state district attorneys are determined by local areas, such as counties, and are often elected.

They have great power in determining the course of criminal cases, including whether charges should be brought against the suspect.

The interpreter provided by U.S. prosecutors to communicate with Hiroko did not speak Japanese very well and was indecisive.

Hiroko continued with the meetings, but her distrust toward U.S. law enforcement grew.

She said she was upset that McAlister killed Hanako only eight months after being released on parole.

“Why did you parole McAlister?” she asked Boudin.

He cited McAlister’s qualification for the equivalent of a high school diploma while serving time, among other things.

But Hiroko thought this was “irrelevant.”

She asked the DA: “Did you know McAlister was a drug addict? Do you think parole was appropriate?”

Boudin readily admitted that his decision to release McAlister on parole was “wrong.”

Hiroko landed in San Francisco in early January last year. She was scheduled to meet with Boudin and other officials on the day of her arrival, but she canceled it because she didn’t know who she could trust.

She wanted to return to Japan with Hanako’s body, but that was not possible.

Just before she left San Francisco, Hiroko spoke with the city’s mayor, London Breed.

Even before Hanako’s death, McAlister had been arrested and released multiple times while on parole.

Breed repeatedly blamed poor coordination between authorities, but she did not offer an apology to Hiroko.

However, Hanako’s death and details about the perpetrator were starting to cause a big stir about security in this city.

(Marie Louise Leone contributed to this article.)