Book Reviews - Autumn 2012

A Monster at Large

Crime, politics, and the vagaries of Japanese justice

By James Fallows | September 4, 2012
Tokyo's Roppongi nightclub district
Tokyo's Roppongi nightclub district


People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pp.

The appeal of crime fiction, apart from the suspense, the gore, and often the sex, is the promise of effortless immersion in a different culture and time. The late-19th-century example is Arthur Conan Doyle’s somewhat fanciful evocation of Mormon Utah in A Study in Scarlet. My favorite 20th-century example is George V. Higgins’s depiction of small-time Boston hoodlums in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. More recently we have the Shanghai of Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen books, the Tokyo of Seicho Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi, the Russia of Martin Cruz Smith, the Berlin of Philip Kerr, and the Scandinavia of all too many renderings.

The appeal of nonfiction about crime, apart from the suspense, the gore, and often the sex, is the opportunity to explore the social setting and individual pathology that gave rise to an offense. For nearly half a century, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood has been the standard, indispensible work. People Who Eat Darkness, by the British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry, is an outstanding new example.

The book describes a murder case that commanded attention in Japan and England through much of the 2000s, and that Parry covered while stationed in Tokyo for The Times (London). From the start, the reader knows the bad news: on a Saturday evening in July 2000, a young English woman named Lucie Blackman disappeared from the Roppongi foreigner-nightlife district of Tokyo, where she was working as a hostess. Seven months later, after many tearful televised pleas for her return by her parents, siblings, and friends, the dismembered and partially mummified pieces of her body were found in a seaside cave near the resort town of Zushi. She had been dead since the night of her abduction.

Nearly seven years after that, an unforgettably ghoulish character named Joji Obara was convicted of murdering an Australian woman and raping eight other Japanese and foreign women, after having knocked them out with chloroform or spiked drinks, and then videotaping them as he molested and in some instances tortured them. The police suspected that he might have had well over a hundred victims, just as they were sure (as the reader will be) that he had also killed Blackman. Among other hideous details, neighbors had heard a commotion likely caused when Obara was cutting off Blackman’s head in his apartment with a chain saw, and the last known photo of Blackman was found in an undeveloped roll of film found in Obara’s Zushi apartment. But for reasons Parry presents as reflecting the oddities of the Japanese justice system, prosecutors lacked the clinching evidence to convince the trial judges (Japan does not use the jury system) in her case. A few years later, an appeals court later reversed parts of the acquittal—they can do that, too, in Japan—and found Obara guilty of abducting and drugging Blackman, of cutting up her body, and of illegally disposing her body parts, but somehow not of killing her. Fortunately he is now locked up on a life sentence for his convictions in the Blackman case and others.

As in Capote’s saga, Parry’s story includes no heroes, only victims and villains. Obara is an outright monster: the coddled and precocious son of rich Korean immigrants who had changed their family name to avoid anti-Korean prejudice in Japan, vain about his “over 200” IQ, the keeper of detailed ledgers about the women he had drugged, raped, and filmed over the decades. He infuriated and frustrated the police by refusing to confess, as virtually all Japanese defendants eventually do. (The conviction rate there is 99.85 percent, versus under 75 percent in the United States and Britain.) “A crew-cutted thug, a svelte psychopath, or a twitching inadequate—any of them would have been more satisfactory than Joji Obara, with his lisp and his loneliness and his fastidious, outlandish determination,” Parry writes after watching him in the dock.

Lucie Blackman’s family is destroyed by the ordeal: her beloved sister attempts suicide, her parents break up, and her father attracts international scorn by too obviously enjoying his time in the limelight and then, incredibly, by accepting a nearly million-dollar payment from Obara to sign a document questioning the presented evidence. Blackman herself is a heartbreaking figure. She was only 21 when she died but had already abandoned a disappointingly brief career as a flight attendant. She went to Tokyo on a whim and at a friend’s suggestion, in hopes of adventure and of making fast money to pay off her debts. Attractive but not beautiful, she was tall, blond, and busty and therefore an immediate success with those Japanese nightclub-goers whose ideal of Western beauty was based on Marilyn Monroe. Just before her abduction, she had met and fallen in love with a young U.S. Marine stationed in Japan.

But the real achievement of the book is its exploration of the institutional strengths, weaknesses, and peculiarities of Japan—and of the situation of foreigners there. The book is an indictment of the Japanese police and criminal justice system. Obara had offended so grossly, for so many years, that the police had already had numerous opportunities to catch and stop him. But because the complaints had come from foreign women working in the presumptively shady hospitality business, the police shrugged them off. Three years before Blackman was killed, an American woman survived the drugging-raping-videotaping ordeal with Obara, and then reported him to the police. She was ignored. Five years earlier, an Australian woman had died in a hospital—after Obara himself had dropped her off there, comatose, allegedly because she had eaten bad seafood. “The failure was one of imagination, an institutional inability to think other than in clichés,” Parry writes. “People were types, and types were to be relied upon. The young hostess who went to a customer’s place and then claimed rape must be [lying]; the respectable chap who talked of a bad oyster and food poisoning was to be believed. Against Obara, the Japanese police offered no protection whatsoever; he slipped freely in and out of the coarse mesh of their net.”

There is much more in this rich and revealing book: about the subjects the Japanese press will and will not investigate, about the differences between British and Japanese tabloid coverage, about the connection between Japan’s yakuza criminal establishment and its political and business leaders, about the difficulties faced by ethnic Koreans in Japan, about the baroque oddities of Japan’s commercial sex industry, and about the exhilaration and disorientation of existing as a foreigner in Japan. Parry says, of another British woman whom Obara drugged and raped but did not kill, that she “had quickly discovered one of the defining features of life as a foreigner in Japan and the reason it attracts so many misfits of different kinds: personal alienation, that inescapable sense of being different from everyone else, is cancelled out by the larger, universal alienation of being a gaijin,” an “outside person” or foreigner.

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