richard lloyd parry

The Rumpus Interview with Richard Lloyd Parry

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In the summer of 2000, when Lucie Blackman boarded a flight from London to Tokyo, she embarked on a journey similar to the one I had first made two years previously.

Soon after arriving in Tokyo, Lucie found work at the same place I had done: a hostess club named Casablanca in the Roppongi district.

Our jobs occupied an ambiguous gray area within Japan’s varied mizu shobai, or Water Trade, a term used to refer to the Japanese nighttime entertainment industry that may or may not involve sex. Officially, the job of a hostess involves flirting with male customers, accompanying them in their drinking and their Karaoke efforts, topping up drinks, lighting their cigarettes, and going out to dinner with them in an arrangement that is known as a dohan.

It was while on a dohan that Lucie disappeared.

Seven months passed before Lucie’s remains were found in a cave behind the home of a Casablanca customer, Joji Obara. Those seven months saw a huge search for the missing woman and speculation that involved human traffickers, sadomasochistic clubs, and religious cults.

Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor and Tokyo Bureau Chief of The London Times, covered the case as it unfolded and now, a decade later, has published an expanded—and fascinating—account in his second book, People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman.

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The Rumpus: Lucie’s remains were found 10 years ago. Why did you publish the book just last year?

Richard Lloyd Parry: It simply took me that long to research and write it. I have a full-time job, and even though I took some leave from The Times, I had to finish the book off in the mornings and evenings. In some ways, the timing was good—Joji Obara, the man accused of killing Lucie Blackman, had his final appeal rejected literally a few days before the book went to press. So in the end, I was able to tell the story in its entirety. And perhaps the various ingredients of the book benefit from having been stewed in their own juices for such a long time.

Rumpus: British readers are generally very familiar with this case; was there any hesitation in publishing in the US where the case is not so well known?

Parry: Thirteen US publishers turned the book down because the story seemed to have no obvious hook for Americans—the little-known story of a British girl who came to grief years ago in Japan. In fact, the book has done better in the US than in the UK partly, I suspect, for this very reason. I guess that a lot of British readers feel that they already know the story, more or less—for Americans, its strange twists and turns are fresher and more interesting.

Rumpus: On the other hand, although I am intimately familiar with the case and its outcome, I found the book extraordinarily compelling. How did you approach the writing of the book so that it would be suspenseful even for readers who already know the story?

Parry: I made no effort to conceal from the beginning the fact that Lucie was dead, because this is so well known in Britain. But I wrote much of the story from the point of view of Lucie’s family and friends who, for the first few months at least, didn’t know her fate—I think that imparts a kind of suspense. And the story has so many bizarre twists and turns that even those who followed the case closely will come across plenty of surprises. A couple of people have said that, even though they knew from the beginning that Lucie wasn’t coming back, as they were reading the book they hoped, and occasionally even believed, that she would.

Rumpus: Early on in People Who Eat Darkness you describe hostesses as “unapproachable.” How difficult was it to gain access to this world and its characters?

Parry: Hostesses are very approachable indeed if you are prepared to pay ¥12,000 an hour for their company. I did that a couple of times, but quickly reached the limits of my patience as well as my money. So I tried to find a job working as a barman in [a] gaijin hostess bar, as a way of getting to know girls like Lucie, and the milieu in which she worked. It turned out to be a very humbling experience.

Since Lucie’s disappearance, several of the bars with foreign hostesses have closed (although the one she worked in survives). Those that remain still want foreign girls—but since most of the customers are Japanese, they need Japanese barmen and waiters. I wasn’t Japanese. It also became painfully obvious that, in my late 30s, I was already considered past it for such work. In the end I got a job making drinks in a pole-dancing club named Obi 1-Kenobi. No, that really is its name. It was a terrible place, and I was a terrible barman. On the afternoon of my first day at work, I went to a bookshop and bought the Bumper Book of Cocktails, which I kept hidden beneath my row of bottles. I learned a lot about Roppongi, a little about strippers and how to mix lurid drinks, but not much about middle-class European hostesses.

Rumpus: You provide a very thorough and accurate account of the workings of the Roppongi mizu shobai and its various forms—from the Western strippers and hostesses, to the African touts, and Japanese bar girls. Did you know much about either Roppongi or the Japanese sex trade prior to your investigation, or did you have to learn along the way?

Parry: I knew some of the theory, but I learned the juicy stuff along the way, mostly by lingering in Roppongi over the summer of 2006, and talking to people. I talked to a lot of hostesses, of course, serving and retired. One of my most useful informants was a man to whom I give the name “Kai,” a habitué of Roppongi who ran several gaijin hostess bars over the years. He described in fascinating detail the skill involved in deploying the right kind of hostess with the right kind of customer to extract the maximum financial reward. He was a Grand Master—a Field Marshal—of the Water Trade.

Rumpus: You write that you wanted to restore Lucie’s status as a “normal person” from her representation as “a victim, almost the symbol of a certain kind of victimhood: the young woman who comes to a ghastly end in an exotic land.” What issues did you have with some of the more salubrious accounts of the murder, Lucie, and her job?

Parry: The Lucie story, especially in its early stages, was heavily covered in the British tabloids, and inevitably there was a certain amount of sensationalism and drooling. But overall, it could have been a lot worse. It was one of the achievements of Lucie’s father, Tim, that he led the journalists away from what might have seemed the obvious story—about a silly girl who comes to grief in a den of vice—to an equally gripping, and more interesting one, about a loving family’s search for their missing daughter.

Rumpus: Media coverage at the time of the case, and even later, painted an image of Japan and the Japanese that I found unrecognizable. Tabloids described women as being “lured” into danger by their hostess jobs, and one Australian documentary even enlisted a convicted cannibal to tour Roppongi with them to prove how dangerous the area was. In your book you seem to reject this assessment, writing that “in a safe, yet complex society,” with a remarkably low violent crime rate, “she was very, very unlucky.” Did you ever believe that there was any kind of inherent risk working in the Roppongi sex industry?

Parry: There is always going to be risk in a situation where young, inexperienced women are being encouraged to meet up with men they do not know. But imagine if Roppongi-type hostess bars existed in London or New York. There would be sexual assaults or murders every week. Those places are sweetie shops for date rapists. It’s not true to say that Japan is crime-free, but the risk of all kinds of crime is so much lower there compared to any other complex, industrialized society.

Rumpus: One of the most shameless analyses I have read about this case was that of an author trying to tie a completely unconnected murder (that of Lindsey Ann Hawker) to the Lucie Blackman case, and asking if these two murders were “exquisitely Oriental.” I got the sense that you reject this kind of characterization of Japan as a weird, mysterious place filled with perverts. You shed light on a little-understood part of Japan without giving in to hysteria. Were you consciously trying to address these lurid descriptions and conjectures about some kind of innate Japanese character?

Parry: I was. I used to get that kind of thing all the time after the death of Lindsay Hawker (a British teacher who was murdered near Tokyo, in completely different circumstances from Lucie). People would say, “What is it about Japanese men?” As if the cherished dream of the average salaryman is to ravish and dismember foreign girls. It’s ridiculous, as well as racist, for the inhabitants of Western cities to condescend to Japan about crime. The Lucie Blackman and Lindsay Hawker cases are interesting and instructive in different ways, but what they do not reveal is that Japan is a dangerous place.

Rumpus: Were you ever able to contact Joji Obara, or anyone associated with him, directly? How deep were you able to get into his back story?

Parry: I asked repeatedly to talk to Obara in detention, but with no success. At one point, through one of his lawyers, he hinted that he might see me if I would do some spying on the Blackman family on his behalf. This I refused. But I talked to people who knew him as a young man, and had several meetings with someone very close to him, whom I promised not to identify.

I spent weeks trying to find out more about him and his background, but much remains mysterious. I met various Japanese investigative reporters who had made their own inquiries—all had found that it was unusually difficult, almost impossible, to find out much about his past. But I found some intriguing clues.

Rumpus: Are you able to say anything about the legal challenge and personal harassment you encountered while reporting on the case?

Parry: Joji Obara sued me for libel over articles published in The Times, lost, appealed, and lost again. He did the same to various Japanese journalists. His complaints against me were absurd; I got the sense that his aim was to intimidate rather than to redress a genuinely felt sense of wrong. Being sued is an interesting experience, although not one that I would ever choose to repeat. I was very lucky to have a tough and courageous employer which supported me unquestioningly in my defense.

Some time afterwards, a series of strange events occurred, which I describe in the book. Surveillance by an unknown person photographing me and my family; anonymous letters accusing me of being part of a plot to bring down the Japanese royal family, and inciting attacks against me; visits to my office from Japanese neo-fascists. I went to the police, who advised me to stand well back from railway platforms in case someone tried to push me in front of a train. Someone was orchestrating a very strange campaign against me. Who it was, I cannot with certainty say, although I have my private suspicions.

Rumpus: A recurring theme in People Who Eat Darkness is your criticism of the Tokyo Police Department’s handling of the case. How much do you think their reluctance to handle the case rested on Lucie’s job as hostess? Did any policeman you spoke to acknowledge this?

Parry: None of them ever owned up to it, but I had the strong impression that the Tokyo Metropolitan Police did not take seriously sexual crimes against hostesses, or against any women working in the Water Trade. At least one foreign hostess described to me going to the police repeatedly after being drugged and raped by Joji Obara, and being repeatedly turned away. The thinking was: They’re hostesses, not all that far away from prostitutes; they go to a man’s apartment—what do they expect?

Rumpus: The book is populated by a very interesting collection of characters: S&M porn producers, con men, charlatans, and ultra-nationalists all have some connection to the investigation. Did this cause you to change the book’s focus away from just being about Lucie and Joji Obara? How did you end up going so deep into the lives of Lucie’s parents?

Parry: When I embarked on this book, I went separately to see Lucie’s parents, Jane and Tim, to tell them about my plans and ask them for their cooperation (which they both gave, fully and generously). I made a point of saying to both of them that the subject of my book was Lucie and her fate, and that I wasn’t much interested in their marriage, which had ended acrimoniously several years before.

At the time, all of this was true. But years later, while the book was well underway, Tim Blackman accepted a large sum of money from Joji Obara in return for signing a document which questioned some of the evidence against him. Jane (and plenty of other people) reacted with passionate fury. And from then on it became impossible to consider Lucie in isolation. Her parents had moved to the center of the story.

Rumpus: By the end of the book, I felt that I still didn’t understand much about Obara or his crimes. I saw this as a strength, however, and fitting with your description of Lucie’s death as ”sad and mundane”: my final impression of him was that he is sad and mundane. Were you frustrated by this lack of resolution?

Parry: I’m not a great reader of what is called “true crime,” but as I was working on People Who Eat Darkness, I read a few examples—In Cold Blood, The Executioner’s Song, and a handful of books about the Yorkshire Ripper and Fred West. At the lower end of the genre, it is almost a convention that, a chapter or two from the end, the author takes on the role of shrink and psychoanalyzes the criminal, “explaining” his crimes in terms of his unhappy childhood, violent upbringing, failed relationships, etc.

For a while I imagined that I would do something similar. I saw Joji Obara as a mystery to which I would provide the solution. But after years of digging, it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to do this in the way that I had hoped. At first, I regarded this as a disappointment and a bit of a failure. But as I thought more about it I came to believe that the whole notion of summing up human personalities is suspect anyway. An experienced psychologist might have a tentative stab at it after hours of observation of a particular patient. But for a journalist to define the life of another based on a few interviews—it’s presumptuous, verging on the bogus.

My intuition is that the “truth” about Joji Obara is not all that interesting anyway, that his personality was defined by absences (an absence of conscience and of self-consciousness, of human warmth and love), rather than anything as positive as what people like to call “evil.”

Rumpus: In the beginning of People Who Eat Darkness, you write: “It was as if I, the experienced reporter, had been missing something extraordinary in a city which it was my professional pride to know intimately.” What did the case reveal to you about Tokyo? How has it changed the way you see Tokyo?

Parry: I saw a dark, or—more accurately—gray side of the city of which I’d formerly been only dimly conscious. But overall, researching this story increased my love for Tokyo, and the awe with which I regard the greatest city in the world. There’s another stereotype which regards Japan as a shallow, starchy and passionless place. More than ever now, I am conscious of its depth and breadth and diversity, and the richness and variousness of the darkness as well as the light.

Rumpus: Do you still have dreams about the case?

Parry: I think that the dreams that I used to have about Lucie—of being the knight who would save the damsel imprisoned in the castle—have been displaced by dreams of protectiveness towards my baby son and young daughter, who was born in Tokyo while I was working on this story.


Karen is a British writer living in the U.S. Her writing has appeared in The Hairpin, Honolulu Weekly, Matador and $pread Magazine. You can also find her at The Six Trees. More from this author →