“Peril of Jap Vice Trap.”
-Sensationalist People magazine headline following the disappearance of Lucie Blackman
In the summer of 2000, Lucie Blackman, a former British Airways flight attendant working illegally as a hostess in Roppongi, Tokyo, disappeared. Roughly a year later, a man named Joji Obara was brought to trial for her murder and the rape of several other women after police found numerous self-made tapes of an often-masked Obara having his way with clearly unconscious women of various ethnicities. The footage stretched so far back, there were even Betamax tapes.
The tale of Lucie’s disappearance, the eventual discovery of her body and the evil wiliness of the man who killed her is long and complicated and filled with more intriguing bit-players than an instalment of Kinji Fukasaku’s The Yakuza Papers. Journalist Richard Lloyd Parry, who worked in Tokyo and spent many years on the case (both on the clock and off) has released his account of the whole tale. People Who Eat Darkness is long and exhaustive (perhaps too exhaustive) but frequently riveting, with Parry wearing numerous hats (perhaps too many hats), those of the journalist, anthropologist, fixated Ellroy-esque writer obsessed with both Lucie and her case, historian, and commentator.
For our purposes here, without ruining Darkness, I’ll be using the book to help break down several elements of Japanese society, starting here with the hostess culture, following on in later columns with police investigations and finally into the immigrant experience, all framed of course through the lens of criminality, and certain Japanese pop culture depictions thereof, as well as the Blackman case.
People Who Eat Darkness is both objective and subjective depending on the section of the book you’re reading. Parry admirably takes great pains to extinguish any whiff off true crime ghoulishness from the work with heaps of historical fact and, yes, fair dollops of his own self. He says, “…I hoped I could do some service to Lucie Blackman, or to her memory, by restoring her status as a normal person, a woman complex in her ordinariness, with a life before death” (1). However, the aforementioned Ellroy-esque streak is also apparent early: “The story infected my dreams…I found it impossible to forget Lucie Blackman” (2).
There’s also an almost unbelievable naivety on display from Parry for a man who lived in Japan for most of his adult life and is a journalist by trade. The culture at large is teeming with inescapable seediness, strangeness, and one doesn’t have to dim the neon much at all to be well aware of the darkness. This is not a judgement – from a Western perspective, it is simply a fact, and, as I’ve discussed in this space before, whilst Japan is a very safe and very awesome place, remarkably safe and awesome, when someone there snaps, it’s frequently very unpleasant. Parry writes, in one of his more overwrought moments, that Lucie’s case was like “the key to a trapdoor in a familiar room, a trapdoor containing secrets – frightening, violent, monstrous existences to which I had been oblivious”(3). It’s actually a little hard to swallow that, but perhaps this is an unnecessary attempt to either remain the English everyman or “pulp up” his exhaustive research and years of work.
While the early section detailing Blackman’s life is necessary, it certainly could have used some trimming. Parry establishes very well that Lucie was a consumer: she liked things and she liked to spend; indeed the whole point of her trip to Japan was to score some of that sweet hostess cash and pay off her mounting debts, but the details of the French manicures she liked could certainly have been cut, and childhood diary entries do nothing to increase sympathy for, or understanding of, Lucie, who by the very nature of her horrific end is as sympathetic as one could possibly be. We know, already by this point, that she is not some Lost Little Rich Girl – writing about her childhood paranormal experiences (along with her mother’s “senses”) do nothing but take a reader’s eyes off the page long enough to give them a roll.
Where Darkness excels, however, is in its wonderfully readable history sections of not only Roppongi, but the commercial sex trade (fuzuoku) in all its complications, and Japan’s frequently disagreeable treatment of its Korean immigrants (Obara is of Korean descent, and his family history, as much as Parry could get to, is fascinating stuff). Yes, this is not your ordinary Girl Gets Murdered By Sex Creep book.
Just like Grey, the protagonist in in Mo Hayder’s overlong, but occasionally gripping ‘blockbuster,’ Tokyo (which is worth a read but won’t be covered in this space), Lucie’s role as hostess was essentially to chat, flirt and drink with the male clients of the bar, all of whom paid for her time. It’s all a bit like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer chats up that model with “Do you come with the car?” and she tee-hees and goes, “Oh, you…” except that in this case, if the guy ponies up enough dough, he’ll take the hostess out for an all-expenses paid dinner date (called a dohan), generally act like top shit, take the girl back to the club and spend even more money there. It’s all a strange piece of role-play (something the Japanese are very fond of), with near pro-wrestling levels of suspension of disbelief required for the men involved. It’s supposed to be sexless, and in theory, it is. In practice, however…
In practice, at least in Osaka, where I spent the bulk of my time, hostesses are often plied with expensive gifts for the expectancy of a sexual encounter that, more often than not, according to my Japanese ex-hostess source, takes place. Repeatedly. This phenomenon is known as “compensated dating,” something that gained serious traction in the ‘90s when it was revealed that large numbers of schoolgirls were prostituting themselves to older men in return for designer goods. Although the government actually did attempt something of a crackdown, compensated dating spread from the underage to office workers and even housewives.
In last instalment’s brief look at Gate of Flesh, it’s mentioned how you could have fucked one of the prostitutes of the time for forty yen, or the cost of a pound of black market post-war beef (which may in fact have been horse according to Darkness; more on this in a later column). However, James Farrer’s introduction to Joan Sinclair’s amazing, essential 2006 pictorial tour of Japan’s wonderland of sex shops, Pink Box: Inside Japan’s Sex Clubs, says that, “according to economist Takashi Kadokura, the commercial sexual services sector in Japan accounted for Y2.37 trillion in 2001, or nearly $20 billion” (4). My, how times and economies change. Penetration, it should be mentioned, is illegal, you can’t just go about picking up johns and fucking them and expect to skate under the law, which is why some hostesses will do the deed in exchange for brand goods. And while literal intercourse may be illegal, “fellatio and masturbation, in all their forms, are permitted” (5).
Roppongi, bar-filled, foreigner-friendly hostess paradise is evocatively brought to life in Darkness:
“Roppongi was not especially trendy. For quality, variety, or good value, Tokyo had many more interesting entertainment districts – elegant Ginza, with its old-fashioned department stores and middle-aged gentility; the edgy street life of Shinjuku, with its gangsters and sex shows; and Shibuya, domain of the glazed, ultrafashionable young. Foreigners were to be seen all over Tokyo, of course, but only in Roppongi was their presence the entire point of the place” (6).
Indeed, those familiar with Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld may recall that Nick Zappetti, an American who thrived in Japan after the war, thanks to the black market, was known as The King of Roppongi and opened a popular pizza joint there that became a Tokyo hot spot for many years. Indeed, Nicola’s, the restaurant concerned, “made Roppongi synonymous with pizza” (7).
In Darkness, Parry also completely nails the bitter sweetness of gaijin life and it’s not hard to imagine Lucie’s initial unhappiness smiling for rich morons trying to impress her with their broken English and their bank balances. I had a Canadian teacher friend who finally snapped on a train one day, raising her voice at a man who was utterly taken with her long blond hair, her blue eyes, her perfect smile. She, like Lucie Blackman, was, as Lucie’s father explained whilst appealing for witnesses, “…a very noticeable young lady…” (8).
Lucie Blackman, like many foreign hostesses, was coveted for her “exotic” appeal and, in most cases, it appears as though most of her clients were the typical well-behaved businessman in need of an ego-massage. As unseemly as the hostess culture could possibly appear, it must be stated that it’s a relatively safe occupation, if shallow, despite the clear objectification taking place.
Darkness divides the Roppongi nightlife neatly up into three tribes: Africans (the ultra-gaijin) wooing passers-by into clubs; “the Roppongi girls,” the Japanese females drawn to the place for the possibility of snagging a gaijin for the night or possibly longer; and the numerous foreign women, working the bars and clubs, of which Lucie was one.
In 2008, The Tokyo Reporter reported that Roppongi was seeing a major police crackdown, with all sorts of shady businesses being forced to close at 1 am, making trade in such establishments “virtually impossible.” This does not take away from the rich history of the place, however, which Parry elaborates on quite excellently.
The practice of men paying for the company of females dates back to the eighteenth century in Japan, when geisha, courtesans and common prostitutes were separated “by a gulf of accomplishment and respectability” (9). Skipping over nearly a century and a lot of yen, it’s in post-war Japan that Roppongi began to thrive as a hub for foreigners, with the US army taking over a large, formerly Japanese, army barracks and, of course, businesses of all sorts started up to cater to the occupiers. Roppongi earned an enduring nickname during this time, “High Touch Town,” and although it sounds wonderfully lurid, according to Darkness, it actually refers to a Japanese explanation for all the high-fiving going on between gaijin (10). It’s worth noting, however, that the aforementioned Tokyo Reporter article quotes a rather tired sounding member of the local shopkeeper association, who claims that “People don’t know what it means.” So take what you will from that.
It’s also worth noting that the hostess phenomenon works both ways – females spent ginormous sums in Host Bars where male hosts with ridiculous haircuts spend hours with hapless ladies as they spends thousands on them. Foolishly though, the Host Bar clientele seems far more fixated on love than companionship with an attractive partner and the Hosts are more often than not willing to take full advantage. Oddly though, there are even host bars with transsexual and lesbian women, butched up in suits and with boy band haircuts, playing the role of the male for the female too intimidated by the brashness of the male host. If you’ve ever seen hosts on the hustle, you’ll gain a better understanding of why this odd niche in the “dating” market exists…
Lucie Blackman’s disappearance and the subsequent international spotlight shined upon both Japan’s nightlife and its law enforcement practices caused much embarrassment to Japan and when we return, we’ll look at Japanese cops in greater depth, with reference to People Who Eat Darkness and Shohei Imamura’s masterful 1979 film Vengeance Is Mine, which details the exploits and murderous urges of Enokizu Iwao.
“World’s Greatest Crimefighters”: Cops & Killers Onscreen and Off In VENGEANCE IS MINE and PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS.
- Parry, Richard Lloyd, People Who Eat Darkness, FSG, 2012, page 19
- Ibid, page 17
- Ibid, page 17
- Sinclair, Joan, Pink Box: Inside Japan’s Sex Clubs, Harry N. Abrams Inc, 2006, page 13
- Parry, Richard Lloyd, op. cit, page 73
- Ibid, page 61
- Whiting, Robert, Tokyo Underworld, Vintage Books, 2000, page 116
- Parry, Richard Lloyd, op. cit, page 120
- Ibid, page 75
- Ibid, pages 75-76