The Disappearance of a Young Woman Abroad: People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry

In 2000, a young British woman named Lucie Blackman working as a club hostess in Tokyo disappeared after taking a ride with one of her wealthy customers. Her body was found dismembered seven months later in a seaside cave.

People Who Eat Darkness by award-winning British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry is the story of Lucie, her family, her disappearance and the subsequent investigation and legal proceedings of the case. It is also the story of her abductor and killer, Joji Obara.

Before traveling to Japan, Lucie had worked as a British Airways flight attendant until she realized that the grueling schedules and isolation (she was never in any place long enough to make real connections) were too much. She subsequently resigned and, knee deep in debt, accompanied her best friend to Tokyo where they planned to work at a hostess club, an establishment on the fringes of the sex industry and that caters to wealthy Japanese businessmen willing to pay over $100 an hour for female company. The clubs paid handsomely, or at least compared to English teaching, and Lucie believed this to be the quickest way to get back on her feet financially.

The hostess clubs are an interesting phenomenon. There is, supposedly, no sex involved. Attractive women, often foreign, are paid to basically stroke men’s egos. The hostesses exist to pour drinks, light cigarettes, listen to the men and laugh at their jokes. The most difficult part of the job seemed to be boredom. But the women did have pressure; to keep their jobs, they needed to establish their own clientele of regulars, whom the clubs relied on for steady business.

Perhaps Joji Obara was a prospective regular. One evening, the friend receives a cell phone call from a seemingly delighted Lucie. Lucie says that Joji will soon be giving her her own cell phone, and that they are now driving to the seaside. That was the last time her friend ever heard from her.

The book details the long months following Lucie’s disappearance: the role her parents and siblings played in drumming up media and other support to keep the story and investigation alive (Lucie’s father went as far as reaching out to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair); the sometimes infuriating and slow responses of the Japanese police; the way Lucie’s family’s dysfunction played out in each person’s grieving process; and, finally, the identification and discovery of the abductor and murderer, and the final attempts to bring him to justice.

We learn, upon his arrest, that Joji Obara was a serial rapist. In his apartment were detailed records and videotapes of the women he had lured and drugged for thirty years. He used a different name with each woman. Another club hostess had gotten sick and died some years back after spending a night with Obara and complaints had been made, but the police had not followed up.

In the author’s profile of Obara, we learn that he is an ethnic Korean whose parents had immigrated to a poor Korean ghetto in Japan. Though Parry does not excuse Obara’s crimes (most people with difficult pasts do not become rapists and murderers), he paints an illuminating picture of a troubled man with a troubled past, a personal history that became a window into the ugly but often hidden and unspoken realities of Japan’s ethnic minority communities and the prejudices they face.

Parry, too, is honest in his portrayal of Lucie’s family. Her father Tim, who flew to Japan frequently and never tired in his efforts to fight for his daughter, is a confusing portrait of loyalty and self-interest. Where had he been when Lucie was growing up, when he became involved in multiple affairs before finally leaving his family? Why had he accepted a substantial amount of money from the killer during the court trial, in exchange for providing some verbal support? Lucie’s mother and father, who were icy at best before Lucie’s disappearance, became even more hostile after her death. Without judgment, Parry does an admirable job of laying bare the flaws of a family trying to survive a horrific and unspeakable tragedy.

Though some parts felt repetitive, I couldn’t put the book down. I found it simultaneously intimate and chilling. I was fascinated to read about a part of Japanese society that I’d never entered. It is an eye-opening look into Japan’s mizu-shobai, or “water trade,” a euphemism for its diverse night entertainment or sex industry; its criminal investigation/justice procedures (one of which is a heavy reliance on criminal confession and inevitability of cooperation and remorse); and its Korean community and history. On a personal level, the book is an intimate account of a flawed but real family and how they contributed to both creating Lucie and remembering her in her death. And, finally, it is a disturbing story of a human being gone wrong. I remain haunted to this day, by the images of Joji Obara.

17 comments on “The Disappearance of a Young Woman Abroad: People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry

  1. whatmeread says:

    I’m going around and apologizing to the bloggers I usually read, because I haven’t been getting any of the messages from any blogs I’m subscribed to in my email. I guess our workplace changed some security settings. I am going to have to check manually from now on.

  2. whatmeread says:

    I loved how you said they were paid to listen to wealthy men’s jokes and then said the biggest problem was boredom! LOL!

  3. Ngan R. says:

    I remember reading about this story in The New Yorker some time ago and was horrified by the crime, the criminal, and the investigation. I think reading your review, excellently written as it is, is enough for me on this story right now. I like dark and scary in fiction, but when the events actually occurred, it is hard for me to read.

    • Cecilia says:

      I totally understand. I’m not sure if I would have picked this up if I hadn’t had a personal interest in Japan and expat life in Japan (turns out Lucie and I had arrived in Japan at roughly the same time). I felt chills (in a bad way) just writing the post, when I had to look things up. I hope I don’t end up disturbing my readers by reviewing this book…

      • Ngan R. says:

        I wouldn’t worry about that. I’m just squeamish. I think these investigative books do offer a look at the psychology of a killer, which can be interesting, and as you suggested, engrossing to read.

  4. Naomi says:

    I have always wondered about that particular industry. I can’t understand how it would feel good to have to pay someone to laugh at your jokes. I would be nervous to spend time alone with any of those men. Something about them/it just seems off. Or, like you said, just incredibly lonely. Which is sad. The story sounds fascinating and horrifying at the same time. That seems to often be the case. The sad thing is that it doesn’t really surprise me that it happened. It sounds like the author did a good job looking at it from all angles, and your review is so thorough I feel like I don’t even need to read the book!

    • Cecilia says:

      “The sad thing is that it doesn’t really surprise me that it happened.” – Yes, sadly so. The story feels like a cliche except that it really happened. I think the fact that this was the sex industry impacted the police’s slow response. I think I was probably most intrigued by the story of good people going bad or going astray…everyone from Lucie to the killer to the lonely businessmen found their way to the same place – the hostess club – due to feelings of alienation. Thanks always for your thoughtful comments, Naomi!

  5. rudrip says:

    Cecilia,

    This true account is chilling and tragic. I wasn’t aware of her story and it makes me think how many stories of young women like her go unnoticed or disappear from the landscape altogether. I am not certain this book will make my list, but I appreciate you calling attention to a story that seems obscure, but important.

  6. My goodness, I guess that geishas still exist! I’m going to just echo Naomi’s comment from above – she said it so well. I don’t discriminate against sex workers on an individual level, but I’m pretty disgusted that the entire industry even exists. It’s never really liberation if it’s built on a restrictive gender paradigm…

  7. Sandra Lim says:

    Hi Cecilia

    I’m sort of newish to blogging, and stumbled across your blog and this post which I found very interesting.

    I also worked in Japan for two years teaching English in Tokyo about 15 years ago, and I remember a few women who passed through my workplace on teaching visas, who went straight from the classroom to hostessing within a matter of weeks after arriving in Japan. One thing that a lot of people don’t realize coming from Canada or the US is the kind of reverse racism that exists in countries like Japan or even China, in the way that western/European looks are privileged and prized in Japanese culture.

    I worked with a number of teachers of different nationalities, and the thing that always struck me, was how easy it was for many of those teachers, to not only adopt the reality that being caucasian affords you a superior status in Japanese culture, but also that one’s own cultural values coming from countries with long histories of struggle for social equity – didn’t count. In this light I find it very interesting that Lucy Blackman’s killer was in fact of Korean decent, a minority on the lowest social rung of the ladder in Japan, and that his motive for perpetrating many of the crimes against Western hostesses was fuelled by a kind of dissent and utter craziness, stemming from his low social status in Japanese culture.

    While I don’t sympathize with her killer on any level, I believe that in the west we take for granted that for the most part, social equity is something that the majority of the population strives for. I can’t help but think that when this ideal is not institutionalized, a kind of madness or darkness as the author’s title suggests, is given just the kind of environment to foster such heinous crimes.

    • Cecilia says:

      Hi Sandra, Thank you so much for this very thoughtful comment. I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to respond as I didn’t have a chance to work on my blog until now.
      I think you bring up a very important and insightful point. Yes, unlike here in the west, there is no real outlet for the racially marginalized in Japan, and no recognition or even acknowledgement of the need for equity. I can’t imagine how it would feel to live under these conditions. I work with Japanese clients, and over the years have met a good handful who are actually ethnic Korean or Chinese…but they’ve hidden their true identities through Japanese names and by becoming naturalized Japanese citizens. As far as I know, none have told their friends or colleagues about their family origins. It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it? The more ostracized the ethnic minorities are, the more they suffer and contribute to crimes, and the lower they are seen by the majority.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and for following!

      Cecilia

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