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Consumed by the darkness

by Mark Schreiber

PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS: The Fate of Lucie Blackman, by Richard Lloyd Parry. Jonathan Cape, 2011, 404 pp., £17.99 (hardcover)

This July 1 will mark 11 years since former British Airways stewardess Lucie Blackman agreed to accompany a customer at the Roppongi club where she had been working as a hostess for dohan, by which female staff dated customers in addition to their regular duties.

As Richard Lloyd Parry notes in this meticulously chronicled account, that was the last time her friends saw her alive. After a seven-month search, police found Blackman’s dismembered corpse buried under a seaside cliff on the Miura Peninsula. Due to the body’s prolonged exposure to the elements, the coroner failed to establish a conclusive cause of death. But the sole suspect in her disappearance — a reclusive 48-year-old businessman named Joji Obara who admitted having been with her that day — was apprehended on suspicion of her murder.

In a search of Obara’s home in Denen-Chofu and other locations, police reportedly found a cache of incriminating evidence, including untraceable mobile phones, knock-out drugs and videos that appeared to show him having sex with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of unconscious women.

As an “end of the millennium” phenomenon, the Blackman incident may have been lumped together in the public’s perception with a succession of other disquieting incidents, ranging from the Dec. 30, 2000, slayings of a family of four in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward to the 9/11 attacks on the WTC and Pentagon.

To develop a profile of one of the two characters who figure most prominently in his book, Parry detours from a linear chronology that began with Blackman’s arrival in May 2000 to go back to 1923, when Japanese mobs attacked Koreans in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake, and then proceeds to the 1952 birth in Osaka of Kim Sung Jong, a Korean national who, through a succession of names, metamorphosed into the Japanese Joji Obara.

The book dispassionately conveys the remarkable contrast between the accused killer and the victim. On the one hand, the reader is provided with unambiguous details and insights into Blackman’s brief life, and the heart-rending struggle by family members to overcome their grief. Obara, on the other hand, went to extreme lengths to render himself invisible, and the facets of his murky existence are accompanied by only a few blurred photos, taken decades ago.

Parry spares no ink in pointing out the police’s initially feeble investigative efforts, until badgering from the U.K. side became too intense to ignore. Yet he rightly concedes that Obara’s crimes were exceptional not only by Japanese standards, but by any criteria. Like a modern-day ninja, Obara infiltrated Roppongi’s night scene empowered by the deference club operators accorded their big-spending customers and the ask-no-questions anonymity his wealth bought him. These enabled him to deftly shift identities and mask his crimes for many years. Because neither the prosecution nor the defense arranged for Obara to undergo a psychiatric examination, the dark urges that drove his sex crimes are open to speculation but never satisfactorily explained.

In the end, Blackman’s family will have to console themselves that the court judged Obara responsible for the death nine years earlier of another woman, 22-year-old Australian Carita Ridgway, and that despite his steadfast avowals of innocence, he will likely remain in prison for most of, if not the remainder, of his life.

While “People Who Eat Darkness” stands out as the definitive work on the Blackman case, it is always instructive to see how other writers deal with the same topic. Two previous books — “Tokyo Hostess” by U.K. tabloid writer Clare Campbell and “Tokyo Vice,” by former Yomiuri Shimbun reporter Jake Adelstein — are also worth perusing, the latter in particular for its revelations on human trafficking in Japan.