July 7, 2012 9:25:22 AM
The case of the murder of Briton Lucie Blackman in Japan in 2000 naturally made headlines intermittently for years in Britain and Japan, but is less well known in America. Now the story, told in brilliant and evocative true-crime fashion, is available to us in People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo - And the Evil That Swallowed Her Up (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Richard Lloyd Parry. The author has for a long time been a correspondent in Tokyo for British newspapers, and has lived there most of his adult life. From the beginning of Lucie's disappearance, the story was just part of his reporter's beat. He knew Japan and Tokyo well, but he could not shake the story's hold on him. "It was like the key to a trapdoor in a familiar room, a trapdoor concealing secrets - frightening, violent, monstrous existences to which I had been oblivious." If there were revelations of darkness to him as a resident of that society, his readers here will find much in his account bizarre and macabre. Like any good thriller, however, this is more than an account of crime and criminal and victim. It takes in broad family matters, and is especially good at illuminating for foreigners the peculiarities of Japanese society and its ways of crime and punishment.
Lucie Blackman was 21 years old when she left her job as a British Airways stewardess and her home in London to join a friend to work as a hostess in Tokyo. Thus cultural oddity first enters the story. Lucie took work at a club in the Roppongi district, a grungy part of Tokyo. The job didn't mean topless dancing or sex. It was more in the geisha tradition, but commercially developed. The tasks of Lucie and her friend Louise Phillips were to sit and talk to ordinary businessmen while they ran up charges for booze. The talk was often friendly, sometimes flirtatious, but mainly boring; it was a labor to keep the guys talking and drinking. This was a job with limits, but the limits were not unambiguous. To make more money (and Lucie had come to Tokyo expressly to pay off her debts), hostesses could go out on "dohan," dinner dates with clients outside the club. Again, beyond what fantasies the clients might have, there was nothing frankly sexual about such activities, and the clients understood that they were paying for company and not for anything else. Lucie was pretty, bright, and friendly, and always paid attention to her grooming; she was popular with customers, many of whom were delighted to be out with a young woman from England.
A couple of months after she arrived, Lucie went off on one of these dates and disappeared. Louise alerted the police, and here is another culture clash. The police had little interest in the disappearance, and this is perhaps understandable, at least initially. Young foreigners disappearing for a few days was not an unusual phenomenon. Hostesses, while fulfilling a completely legal job without physical intimacy, were regarded as suspect; Lucie, who had given up a respectable job as an airline stewardess to become a bar hostess, was particularly incomprehensible. The police did not spring into action, and when they finally did trace clues back to make an arrest, they did so with hesitancy and error. The problem is a paradox; Tokyo is by any standards a safe city in which to live, with few burglaries or car thefts, and women can walk around alone without anxiety any time, night or day. This did little good for justice in Lucie's case: "One of the reasons why Japan's police frequently appeared so bumbling was that they had so little practice fighting real crime."
No one had any idea who the client was who had taken Lucie away, but her friend Louise got a mysterious call to say that Lucie had joined a religious cult and would not be returning and that she wanted no one to look for her. Eventually (in this book, the delays are excruciating), the call was traced and other clues were followed to the seaside apartment of Joji Obara, a rich middle-aged businessman who was an ethnic Korean with many aliases, many business contacts, but no friends. Obara should have been caught years before, for he had a long history of taking women to his apartment, ordering food to be sent in, and offering a drink, secretly laced with Rohypnol. When a woman was subdued, he would keep her unconscious by using chloroform, and he would strip her, rape her, and video the proceedings in what he called "conquest play." In at least one instance years before Lucie's abduction, this led to one woman's liver poisoning and the death. Her family had thought it was an accident, but investigation did not happen. Lucie's capture was not on Obara's tapes, but he did purchase a chainsaw and plastic bags after she disappeared. The inefficient police didn't discover her body for seven months, hidden in a small cave on the beach 250 yards from his apartment.
Obara was smart enough to take advantage of yet another cultural peculiarity of Japan: the legal system depends upon a confession from the accused. Police shame suspects into confessing, and they are successful at it. Partially because of this, criminals who go to trial are almost guaranteed of being convicted, and are regarded as guilty as soon as they are arrested. A courtroom acquittal is a humiliation for all authorities involved. There was an overwhelming circumstantial case against Obara, but he would not confess. Indeed, he used his immense wealth to direct his lawyers in means to obstruct and stall. The legal officials simply did not know how to handle him, and blamed his recalcitrance on his Korean origins. His maneuvers produced a legal outcome that is surprising, baffling, and infuriating.
Parry befriended members of Lucie's family and draws their portraits here; they all seem like decent people hobbled by this brutal sadness. Her mother had had a premonition of doom for Lucie if she traveled to Japan, and she continued to take comfort and understanding from mediums and psychics. She had before Lucie's departure been estranged from Lucie's father, who busied himself in courting the press and successfully badgered Japanese and British officials to keep the case from being forgotten. Her sister attempted suicide after Lucie's ashes were buried, and required months in a psychiatric hospital. Her brother dropped out of college and had a nervous breakdown. The father set up a charitable trust in Lucie's name, but to the disgust of the newspapers and of his ex-wife, he accepted a half-million pound "consolation" payment from Obara. Parry himself was sued by Obara for defamation.
While Obara remains a macabre enigma, Parry has drawn fully formed characters of Lucie and her family members, dealing with the horror in conventional and unconventional ways as best they can. He is in an ideal position to explain the involvement of British and Japanese media. He throws light on the Japanese distrust of foreigners, its sexual prejudices, and its incompetent police. It is a gripping account of a horrific crime, but succeeds in its larger themes because of Parry's sensitive involvement, involvement that is professional, personal, imaginative, and (readers should be grateful) obsessive.
4. A Stone's Throw: Waving flags COLUMNS