Richard Lloyd Parry was the Tokyo bureau chief of The Times of London, when, in 2000 he was assigned to cover the disappearance of a 21-year old British woman from the streets of Tokyo.
Lucie Blackman was a former British Airways flight attendant who had travelled to Tokyo with her best friend Louise to work as a club hostess in order to pay off her mounting debts. Immediately following her disappearance, the only lead as to her whereabouts was an anonymous phone call from a man claiming that she had voluntarily joined a religious cult. The truth of what actually happened to Lucie was to be much stranger and much darker than anyone could imagine.
Richard Lloyd Parry was never able to shake Lucie’s story and it is easy to see why. She remained missing for months, became she became a regular fixture on the cover of the British newspapers. Her father Tim and sister Sophie travelled to Tokyo and were so determined to keep Lucie in the public eye that they became tabloid stories in their own right. The gaps in Lucie’s story were filled with all sorts of differing accounts.
What was the nature of her hostessing work? Why was her father not crying on camera? Why would her best friend, and last person to see her alive not tell anyone but the police her version of events? Moreover, and most importantly, what were the police, in what has been called the safest country in the world, doing to find Lucie?
This is bleak subject matter, which becomes all the more so, when Lucie is finally found. Her body had been dismembered and buried in a remote cave and a man, Joji Obara was arrested, not just for Lucie’s murder but for a raft of drugging’s and sexual assaults going back years, which it appears, could have been stopped if fully investigated.
Parry is a writer confident of his subject matter. Although at times he is in danger of overworking his material, particularly with his Alice in Wonderland metaphors, he mainly writes from a position of factual knowledge. His submersion in the case means he has a strong handle on the many angles of this bleakest of stories.
He writes incredibly well about the misreporting of Lucie’s case and the misunderstandings that led people to differing conclusions as to her fate. His exploration of the ‘water trade’ in Japan – a term that covers the cities often-lurid nightlife in the Roppongi district where Lucie worked – is insightful and clear-eyed.
No other people have expended the imagination and creativity that the Japanese have put into the packaging of paid sex.
A major misconception in this case is that Lucie was a sex worker. She was not; rather she was on the fringes of this type of work, as a hostess in one of the many clubs where salaried Japanese men came to be flirted with and listened to by pretty Western women. It was relatively tame, if somewhat demeaning work, but Lucie hoped that after a few months, her debts could be paid off.
The work followed very strict rules of engagement for the girls and for their clients and Lucie never voiced concerns for her safety. However, for extra money, the girls were encouraged to go on dates with their clients outside of the club where they worked and it was on one of these dates that Lucie disappeared.
Parry is also insightful in his treatment of Tim Blackwood, Lucie’s father. A complicated man, he had a fractious relationship with Lucie’s mother from whom he was divorced and a complicated relationship with the press. Determined to keep Lucie’s case in the public eye, he courted the press, and at times seemed to almost be enjoying his celebrity status.
The British press were quick to turn on Tim and his daughter Sophie for the lack of emotion they showed when on camera and the manner in which they tried to shape the coverage of Lucie’s disappearance.
The families of the missing are doubly burdened, first by the pain of their ordeal, and then by our expectations of them, expectations of a standard of behavior higher than we require or ourselves
However, Tim did himself little favours and the final nail in his credibility’s coffin came when he accepted around £500,000 from Joji Obara in ‘condolence money’ for the murder of his daughter. Although a common occurrence in Japan, the fact that Tim then spent some of the money on a yacht did not help with the public perception of him. Parry is careful to put Tim’s actions into context and is clear that he himself liked the man, but he leaves judgement to the reader.
I hope I that I never have to confront a loss like that of the Blackman’s, and that I never discover my own set of those particular moral bearings…I might reject any financial compensation, or I might regard I as the very least to which I was entitled. I don’t know, and nor does anyone else – and none of us has the right to judge those who have been unlucky enough to suffer such a torment.
As the book shifts from Lucie’s disappearance to the discovery of her body and Obara’s subsequent trial, it loses some of its momentum; however, this is a strong piece of reportage. The case of Lucie Blackman was one of gaps, spots of darkness, cracks where the truth fell through – be it about the work she was doing, the last moments of her life or the failure of the Japanese police to protect not just Lucie, but the countless other young women who had been victims of Obara in the past. In attempting to make sense of Obara, Parry finds just darkness, a man who does not allow himself to be photographed and whose continual denial of Lucie’s murder makes him beyond comprehension.
What Parry also does well is to keep Lucie – the young woman, the friend, the sister, the daughter – front and centre at all times, quietly reminding the reader of the loss that has occurred here. The Lucie he presents is not the girl of the tabloid headlines, but a young woman who travelled with her favourite stuffed animal and was filled with dreams and insecurities like any young woman of her age.
A few years on from childhood, her life was already a complexity of allegiances, emotions and aspirations, often contradictory. Lucie was loyal, honest and capable of deceit. She was straightforward and mysterious, open and secretive. I felt the helplessness of a biographer in sitting and reconciling this material, in doing justice to an entire life.
From the extravagant bed she bought just before leaving for Tokyo – a bed she would never sleep in – to her heartfelt diary entries where she pours out her self-doubt and her wish that she could just disappear, the heartbreak of what happened to one family is laid bare in a profound and insightful way.
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