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Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

THE ZEIT GIST

Monster in Blackman case still an enigma

Times Tokyo bureau chief's book seeks to make sense of the senseless: the death of a young woman a long way from home


Richard Lloyd Parry spoke about his new book, "People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman," with Jeff Kingston. The following draws on this interview and his book.

People Who Eat Darkness cover
Closed book: In "People Who Eat Darkness," explains Richard Lloyd Parry, "I address questions about the police investigations, about why the rapes went undetected so long and why the trial (of Joji Obara) took so long. I also look at the impact on the families and the trauma they have experienced." However, "the main mystery that still lingers is Obara himself." COURTESY OF RICHARD LLOYD PARRY

Lucie Blackman, 21, arrived in Japan in early May 2000 and vanished two months later. Her dismembered and badly decomposed body was discovered in February 2001. In December 2008 the Tokyo High Court found Joji Obara guilty of the abduction, drugging, attempted rape and dismemberment of Blackman, and of illegally disposing of her body. In addition, he was convicted of the rape of eight other women and the rape and killing of Carita Ridgway, an Australian.

Despite considerable circumstantial evidence, the court did not convict Obara of killing Blackman. For his crimes, the court sentenced him to life imprisonment.

The chief appellate judge said: "To violate the dignity of so many victims, using drugs, in order to satisfy his lust, is unprecedented and extremely evil. There are no extenuating circumstances whatsoever for acts based on determined and twisted motives."

After police investigators arrested Obara on suspicion of the abduction and indecent assault of another woman, they discovered his apartment in Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, where he filmed what he called his "conquest play": hours of violating inert, drugged women whom he had lured to his apartment. Obara maintains that the sex was consensual, but prosecutors drew on victims' testimony, his cache of videos and diary entries to unmask a serial rapist of epic proportions. Obara's logbook of sexual conquests lists 209 names. Although her name was not on the list and there was no video of Blackman, investigators believed Obara was involved in her disappearance.

Richard Lloyd Parry runs the Times bureau in Tokyo and covered this extraordinary case from the beginning. He wrote an account of this harrowing saga because, he says, "I have been following this case for several years and felt frustrated because it was so difficult to explain the complexities of the story within the confines of a short news article. Here I can explore the strange twists, dead ends and red herrings as this story unfolded.

"There has been a great interest in this story in the U.K., and whenever I went back and talked to people they would tell me it never quite added up. I also had my share of questions and doubts and wanted to get to the bottom of it. I also wanted to set the record straight because there are many misconceptions about what hostesses really do, and the tabloids have been frankly racist, casting Obara as representative of predatory, sexually perverted Japanese men who are somehow genetically predisposed to seek out and obsess over foreign women.

"In my book I address questions about the police investigations, about why the serial rapes went undetected so long and why the trial took so long. I also look at the impact on the surviving families and the trauma they have experienced."

For Lloyd Parry, however, "the main mystery that still lingers is Obara himself. What made him what he is?"

Lloyd Parry visited Osaka a few times to look into his background and met with local Japanese journalists who shared their puzzlement about how difficult it was to find out much about Obara and his family.

"Usually you can find someone to talk, but not in this case," he says. "They seemed to slide through life without leaving a trace."

Richard Lloyd Parry
Richard Lloyd Parry

What he did find out was that Obara's parents were immigrants from Korea, and that in his early years he was raised in one of the poorer parts of Osaka. Yet by the 1960s his father had become one of the city's richest men, before dying in 1969 in murky circumstances in Hong Kong. As a teenager he attended good schools while living apart from his family, with only a maid to take care of him, in Denenchofu, a wealthy district in Tokyo. "So the immigrant background and initial poverty could have affected his sense of identity, then the sudden wealth, being spoiled, living alone and apart from his family as a teenager," suggests Lloyd Parry. "But there are many people with similar backgrounds, but there is only one Joji Obara."

Blackman came to Tokyo to make money and had heard that hostessing was lucrative. She was tired of her low-paid job as a flight attendant, had some debts to pay off and "was trying to escape a difficult family situation," Lloyd Parry explains. "Her parents had recently gone through a bitter divorce. And there was an ex-boyfriend she wanted to leave behind." Her diary revealed a typical foreigner's ups and downs with life in Japan, delighted with the orderliness, cleanliness and exotic side of Tokyo while other days she was homesick.

While emphasizing that Blackman was a victim, Lloyd Parry also points out that "Japan has a way of disabling one's instincts of caution." In his view, precisely because Japan seems so beguilingly safe — and it almost always is — foreigners in Japan often let down their guard and do things they would not do at home.

"Lucie would never have dreamed of doing a similar job anywhere else in the world. I don't think at home that she would get in a car with a stranger and then go to his apartment. Japan disarms people."

How was Obara able to elude the police so long? Lloyd Parry attributes his success to "quite a clever method": "He used drugs and violated unconscious women who often couldn't remember anything when they woke even if they felt something was wrong. He targeted victims who were vulnerable and legally compromised. Hostesses typically come on 90-day tourist visas and are not supposed to work, so even if they have suspicions, they fear that if they go to the police they will get into trouble. Also there is a language barrier and most don't have a supportive network.

"But even in cases that the police were contacted by victims, they showed no interest because they don't take hostesses seriously. They were negligent, and perhaps their greatest cock-up was in 1992 when Obara dropped Carita Ridgway, an Australian hostess, off at a hospital, allegedly suffering from bad oysters. Her sister living in Kichijoji (western Tokyo) was notified as Carita slipped into a coma from which she never recovered.

"The family flew in and was suspicious of Obara's explanation — he called himself Akira Nishida — but the police failed to investigate.

"Had there been an autopsy, police would have discovered, as they subsequently did in preparing for his prosecution, that her liver shut down from a fatal dose of chloroform. In his diary next to her name he wrote, 'Too much chloroform.' "

Lloyd Parry laments that this chance to arrest Obara in 1992 meant that the crimes committed against Blackman and so many other victims over the next eight years could have been avoided. In his view, "The police failed Carita, Lucie and all the other victims. I suspect British detectives would have pursued this case more vigorously and effectively because they are more experienced in dealing with serious crimes. One reason why Japanese police were so flat-footed in dealing with unusual crimes is because they are unusual (in Japan)."

There remains controversy over why the police did not discover Blackman's corpse buried in a cave 250 meters from Obara's apartment when they first searched the area in October 2000. There has been speculation that the police did find the body but left it there on purpose. The reason might have been that investigators were still hoping Obara would break under continuous grilling and sign a confession that would give them information they could not possibly obtain anywhere else. If they could persuade him to tell them where the body was, that would prove to be decisive evidence against him, even if he later disavowed his confession in court.

But Obara never broke. Despite being kept in detention and subject to countless hours of interrogation, he maintained his innocence. As each 23-day period of detention finished, he was re-incarcerated six times under suspicion of raping a different victim.

When confronted with overwhelming evidence, Japanese criminals typically confess. When Lloyd Parry asked about Obara's remarkable resilience under the lengthy onslaught of questioning, police attributed it to his ethnic background. "They were suggesting that Japanese criminals at least have a sense of decency and confess. Police were complaining that it was their bad luck being landed with a dishonest criminal."

This case underscores the problems of excessive reliance on confessions. As Lloyd Parry asserts, "To an extraordinary degree, police in Japan rely on confessions. In this case the suspect refused to confess and the police had to prove their case based on evidence. They succeeded in the end, but it was a struggle."

If indeed the police left the body in the cave on purpose, it was a major error, since Obara refused to confess and the body had an additional four months to decompose, perhaps eliminating DNA or other evidence that could have implicated him. In addition, "if the police didn't find the body during the first search, buried under only a few inches of sand in an area where Obara has been reported being seen with a dirty spade in hand, they were merely grossly incompetent," says Lloyd Parry.

While Obara was sentenced to life imprisonment and convicted of many heinous crimes, he was not found guilty of Blackman's killing. Given the circumstantial evidence, is this unusual?

"In the Wakayama curry poisoning case (1998), the defendant was found guilty of putting arsenic into the community curry and found guilty of her neighbors' deaths," Lloyd Parry explains. "There was no witness to her putting the arsenic into the curry, no motive was proven and she denied the charges, but she was convicted because she had similar arsenic in her house and had opportunity."

What is the circumstantial evidence in the Obara case?

"Obara searched for ways to dispose of a body and where to purchase sulfuric acid on the Internet soon after she disappeared. The chain saw he purchased after she disappeared was never recovered, only the receipt, but the marks on Lucie's body were not inconsistent with the model Obara purchased." In addition, "Obara had lost his key so called a locksmith to open one of his apartments (the one near the beach cave where she was discovered). The caretaker reported to police that there was some suspicious activity and they came that evening (July 3, 2000) and confronted an agitated Obara. One of the officers testified in court that he saw a lumpy bag in the room, but Obara turned them away. Without a warrant and no investigation yet into Lucie's disappearance, the police left." It was only later, after Obara's arrest in October 2000, that investigators connected the dots.

According to Lloyd Parry, who covered the trial, "Japanese courtrooms are leaden and soporific. One of Obara's lawyers actually broke out snoring. There is no Perry Mason-like drama . . . it's a dreary, bureaucratic proceeding, like a Thursday evening school staff meeting where nothing is at stake."

Lloyd Parry does not think the Blackman case had much of an impact on the mizushobai, or nighttime entertainment business, "especially not for the more numerous Asian women. One change is that now the Caucasians at the 'blonde pubs' come from Russia, the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, whereas before many came from the U.K. and Australia. In 2000, if you told your mum you were going to work in Japan as a hostess it was OK, but now with all the publicity, that's changed."

Blackman's case could have been like so many others that slip through the cracks, if not for some breaks and a father determined to find out what happened to his daughter. Tim Blackman and Lucie's sister, Sophie, came to Tokyo soon after Lucie disappeared and put up 30,000 missing-person posters of a smiling, well-coiffed Lucie wearing a black cocktail dress. That photograph "has become an iconic image in Britain, the emblem of the young woman who comes to a terrible end abroad," says Lloyd Parry.

"Asian victims for various reasons attract less attention. Several chance developments gave Lucie Blackman's case high exposure. Tim Blackman dug in his heels and kept her name in the news. It just so happened that the G8 was scheduled for Okinawa in 2000 so when Tony Blair passed through Tokyo, due to media scrutiny he had to meet with Tim Blackman, which generated pressure to bring the issue up with the Japanese prime minister. Once Blair raised the disappearance with (Yoshiro) Mori, he then raised it with his justice minister, who raised it with the police who then had to be seen to be responding. That was a piece of luck for the family, and it helped to jolt the police into action."

Does this case haunt you?

"Let me stress that it is Lucie Blackman's family and friends who will never recover. They are profoundly damaged by this crime. Lucie's sister, Sophie, made a suicide attempt, her brother, Rupert, had a kind of breakdown, and almost all the relatives and friends I met have gone through some form of therapy as a result of the trauma. The damage and shock has spread further than one would expect. The effect on me has not been anything like that, but the case got under my skin early on. I used to dream about what happened to her. Wake up wondering. It was a troubling and fascinating case I could not get out of my mind."

There has been controversy about Tim Blackman accepting ¥100 million as condolence money from Obara. In Lloyd Parry's view, "he has been unfairly pilloried by the media. It's easy to imagine what you think you would do in a situation like that, and it's easy to congratulate yourself with the confident conclusion that you would never accept money from someone like Joji Obara. But the truth is that unless you have been in that position, you don't know what you would do. There was a lot of self-righteousness and hypocrisy in the condemnation of Tim. There was only one person in a position to judge him, and that was Lucie's mother, Jane. And she has judged him severely."

He adds: "Tim went through a lot going back and forth. His business in property development shut down and he had to borrow heavily to keep going. He also felt he deserved compensation for what he suffered as another victim of Obara. As part of the agreement he signed an odd statement in poorly drafted English raising questions about some of the evidence presented against Obara. But in the end the judge specifically stated that the payment had no influence whatsoever on the outcome of the case or sentencing."

In Japanese courts people who make such solatium payments and accept responsibility for their crimes sometimes get a lesser sentence in recognition of their contrition, "But Obara denied his responsibility for the crimes until the end, and the judge made it clear that he was not influenced by the gesture."

Are there still any loose ends in this case?

"I never did discover what drove Obara and made him the person he became. There was never any psychiatric evaluation by the court. It is not for me to speculate, but one wonders. I never did find anyone who admitted to being a close friend. He is hard to understand."

What were the most difficult parts of the book to write?

"The hardest part to write about involved the family, especially the antagonistic relationship between Lucie's parents. In some cases tragedy can bring people together but in this case a bad relationship became deeply hostile. I did not want to add to the hurt and humiliation that has been heaped on them."

Why did Lucie's father attract such harsh treatment in the media?

"Tim Blackman made enemies among people who began by wanting to help him because he didn't behave in the conventional way that we expect victims of grief and loss to behave. He did not flatter with his neediness, and that — and his eagerness to engage with reporters — made people suspicious. Its almost as if we want victims to be helpless — we find it difficult to accept it when they are calm and in control. He was an actor in the drama, not a passive victim, and this made people uncomfortable."

And so we ended our discussion of a macabre case, one that will haunt Lucie Blackman's family and friends forever. In Lloyd Parry's hands it has been rendered into a gripping story infused with suspense, one that will long linger in the dark eddies of readers' minds.

On Monday, March 14, from 6.15 p.m. to 8.30 p.m., the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Yurakucho, Tokyo, will host a book talk by Richard Lloyd Parry about "People Who Eat Darkness" (Jonathan Cape, 2011). For more information and to reserve a seat, please call (03) 3211-3161. Book Break charges are ¥2,000 (including tax) for the event and buffet. Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan Campus.

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