Until covering the 2000 Tokyo disappearance of British bar hostess Lucie Blackman, journalist Richard Lloyd Parry thought he “had seen something of grief and darkness.” Blackman’s disappearance, which quickly became a media sensation in England and Japan, and now the subject of Parry’s latest book, “People Who Eat Darkness,’’ changed this feeling almost entirely.
That’s no small claim coming from Parry, Asia editor and Tokyo bureau chief of The Times of London, a man who has reported on natural disasters, wars, and violent government transitions such as the end of Indonesia’s General Suharto’s dictatorship, the topic of his 2005 book, “In the Time of Madness.’’ Though when I first read Parry’s assertion, I huffed with my own modest skepticism, I was soon so swept up into the sordid underbelly “People Who Eat Darkness’’ describes I’m impressed that Parry managed to be so restrained.
Blackman, a former British Airways flight attendant, was 21 when she stepped out into the July 1, 2000, Tokyo afternoon to meet a man for a late lunch. About seven months later, her dismembered body was discovered in a seaside cave.
In this city of 30 million people, no one knew who Blackman was meeting that day, not even her best friend, co-worker, and roommate, Louise Phillips, with whom she had moved to Tokyo to work in the city’s “water trade” two months before. The women soon found jobs as bar hostesses at a club with “a crepuscular allure.” On the surface, their work, which entailed pouring drinks for Japanese businessmen and conversing in English, sounds nearly innocent. But the gaijin or foreign bar-hostess position was equally based upon “shisutemu,” a system of “bonuses and compulsions” requiring the women to go on “dohan” or dates with clients outside the club.
After Lucie disappeared, her parents, who had a bitter break-up in 1995, responded to their daughter’s vanishing in radically different ways that escalated their vitriol. Tim Blackman, Lucie’s father, flew to Tokyo with Lucie’s younger sister Sophie and launched a publicity campaign that garnered the public support of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Lucie’s mother, Jane, turned to psychics and channelers. Before long, Tim fell prey to an alleged arms supplier for the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, who claimed to have proof that Lucie had been sold into an international sex-slave ring.
Like the fake arms dealer’s story, the highly bungled investigation into Lucie’s disappearance followed a seedy trail leading to a Tokyo S&M den and eventually centered on a wealthy shape-shifter of Zainichi or Korean-Japanese descent, Joji Obara. Investigators would soon link Obara to the rapes of multiple bar-hostesses, events that Obara referred to as “conquest play,” and another woman’s death.
Cultural differences in judicial values and procedures added to the Obara trial’s “dreamlike suspense.” Fifty-six months in, a leader of the yakuza took the stand as Obara’s star witness. When a shocking verdict was finally delivered 6½ years after the trial began, the story did not end.
While the dark history of Japan’s grave mistreatment of the Zainichi does not immediately press upon Obara’s case, the past rarely impacts events so directly. Yet Parry is skilled enough to delicately and convincingly link this shameful history to the forces that helped shaped Obara.
Such clear-eyed, thorough reporting on the Japanese underworld notwithstanding, the most impressive feat in “People Who Eat Darkness’’ is Perry’s skill in making the reader feel not like a voyeur, but a witness to this deeply human tragedy that illustrates how a single murder creates many victims and proves that the seemingly distant political past can continue to influence individual lives into the present day.
Elyssa East is the author of “Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town.’’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.