By Rachel Paulose
Richard Lloyd Parry’s new book, “People Who Eat Darkness,” is an unblinking, nonfiction account of the disappearance and murder of Lucie Blackman in Tokyo more than a decade ago.
Parry, the Tokyo bureau chief of The Times of London, brings a journalist’s sense of real time to this engrossing but emotionally wrenching read. “People Who Eat Darkness” could drown a reader in grief. I kept the book strategically stashed between sunnier tomes when not reading it and gave it away upon turning in this review, so desperate was I to be rid of its throbbing horror.
Blackman’s story made international headlines, and the search for her killer took many wrong turns. Parry skips through time and space to give us a picture of Blackman’s dysfunctional family; Blackman’s loves, friends, and career in England; the lurid reality of Japan’s underworld sex industry; the twisted life of the man accused of her murder, an ethnic Korean minority in homogenous Japan; and the byzantine Japanese legal system.
Like spokes on a wheel all tracing back to Blackman at the center, various characters and events, even red herrings, appear in the quest for justice for Blackman. Although Parry begins quickly, drawing the reader in with an immediate empathy for Blackman and her family, his narrative slows down and takes detours that mirror the reality of the frustrating search for Blackman’s killer.
Parry begins his account with Blackman’s May 2000 arrival in Tokyo from Kent, England, with her best friend, Louise Phillips. Phillips had convinced Blackman, a tall, blond, former British Airways flight attendant, they could make easy money in Tokyo. At twenty-one, Blackman arrived in Asia deeply in debt and without a job, home, or even a cell phone. Despite visitor visas barring their ability to work legally in Japan, the girls quickly found work as “hostesses” at Club Casablanca in Roppongi, Tokyo’s notorious red light district.
Blackman and Phillips took up residence in a squalid group home, and they made their money “chatting up” the mostly Japanese men who frequented Club Casablanca to meet the gaijin women, foreigners like Blackman and Phillips.
“The only difference between being a British Airways hostess and being at Casablanca was the altitude,” Blackman’s sister told probing reporters after Blackman’s death. This was not quite true. The hostesses of Club Casablanca were required to bring in a certain quota of clients and were pressured to meet men for dohan, dates with customers at outside establishments, followed by evenings at the club where the client would spend more money.
On July 1, 2000, one such client lured Blackman into spending a day with him by the seaside with the promise of a cell phone. Blackman assured Phillips she would be back by evening for a date with her new American boyfriend. No one ever saw Blackman alive again.
Phillips waited an unconscionable two days to report Blackman’s disappearance to the police. Phillips omitted details about Blackman’s work as a hostess in describing Blackman’s sudden disappearance, but even so the Japanese law enforcement showed no interest in opening a case. Phillips then marched off to the British embassy, where officials viewed the situation as a probable abduction and conveyed concern to the Japanese authorities.
The next day, Phillips received an anonymous phone call during which a man with a Japanese accent, purporting to speak on Blackman’s behalf, claimed Blackman had joined a religious cult, “The Newly Risen Religion,” and asserted Blackman wished to start a new life. The caller related intimate details of Blackman’s life, including her outstanding debts and the name of her boyfriend.
Finally, Phillips informed Blackman’s family of her suspected kidnapping. Blackman’s sister rushed to Japan with a friend, printed 30,000 missing persons posters, and engaged the media. The press needed little prompting.
According to Parry, “The combination of the missing girl’s youth, nationality, hair color, and the implications of the job she had been doing had tipped the story over the threshold that separates mere incident from news; it was now impossible to ignore.”
Blackman was in fact already dead. Joji Obara, the man accused of her murder, was arrested in October 2000. He was eventually charged with attacking six other women whose cases had gone cold over the years. Blackman’s dismembered body was not found until February 2001, in a cave by the sea.
At trial, prosecutors presented evidence of Obara’s home movies of his attacks over the years; the journal describing what Obara called his “conquest play”; and his stockpile of chloroform, Rohypnol, and GHB, the latter two infamous date rape drugs. Because Japanese trial hearings are held only once a month, as opposed to day-by-day as in the West, Obara’s trial took five years.
Obara never confessed, and the absence of this evidence presented a grave challenge to prosecutors in a nation where, unlike in the United States, motive must be shown. In Japan, both the prosecution and defense may appeal, and the appeals process was not exhausted until December 2008.
No one emerges from this tragedy unscathed, and understandably so. Con artists and manipulative journalists victimized the already traumatized Blackman family, all of whom experienced unrelenting bouts of depression.
Blackman’s mother, who had premonitions of disaster before her daughter left for Japan, turned to psychics in futile attempts to find her daughter and some measure of peace. Blackman’s sister was placed under psychiatric care after a failed suicide attempt, and her brother dropped out of school in the aftermath of Blackman’s murder. Blackman’s father, a media fixture, faced particular scrutiny for behavior that seemed at times considerably at odds with the portrait of a grieving father.
Tim Blackman drank with journalists, quipped at press conferences, and most shockingly, accepted mimaikin or consolation money, from Obara in return for signing a document that questioned the evidence against his daughter’s alleged killer. Although the studiously sympathetic Parry pleads, “None of us has the right to judge those who have been unlucky enough to suffer such a torment,” the British people did, and readers will.
In exhaustively detailing Obara’s meandering route through the criminal justice process, Parry depicts a Japanese legal system woefully unprepared for the task of seeking out a psychopathic criminal whom the police ultimately labeled a serial killer. As Parry relates it, the very absence of violent crime left the “Boy Scout” Japanese police unable to process the rare Blackman case. Hardened criminals clearly have nothing to fear from the Japanese police, as innocent to brutal crime as their curiously apt mascot “Peepo,” an orange cartoon fairy.
After complaining of inaccuracies in Parry’s reporting of the Blackman story, Obara, of all people, sued Parry for defamation, of all things. The Times of London defended their correspondent against Obara’s ¥30 million lawsuit, which Obara eventually lost, but at considerable financial and emotional cost to The Times and Parry.
Parry was later stalked by unnamed thugs. Parry hints, but refuses to say, this was the nefarious work of Obara’s hired goondas. The darkness is pervasive
Parry details one aspect of this darkness, the mizu shobai or water trade, of Tokyo’s red light district in which Blackman worked, in ways that may strike readers as lascivious. More troubling, he parses the menu of vice, as if gradations are so fine, as if lines are respected, as if women in this trap exercise choice.
Parry seems to fear his readers will infer that Blackman was a “bad girl” who deserved, or at a minimum, should have expected a bad end. But Parry need not obliquely apologize for what the law already recognizes: sexual violence is never a women’s fault. Misogyny lies at the root of hostessing, prostitution, and human trafficking. These are not, as Parry suggests, “shades of…gray,” but shades of black that eat up in total darkness both the women who fall prey to such cruelty and the men who do not value the inherent dignity of a women’s body.
As Parry reminds us, the name Lucie derives from the Latin word for light. The name comes from the same root word as the appellation of that once brightest of angels, Lucifer. Like Lucifer, who turned from light to embody darkness, Lucie Blackman’s tragic story is a warning of how light may be overwhelmed by darkness. It is a warning well rooted in Parry’s riveting narrative.