Richard Lloyd Parry has covered politics, wars and more in Asia from Japan for the past 15 years, first for the UK newspaper The Independent and then The Times. He never wrote a book about his time here – as he did after covering the bloody events in Indonesia after Suharto was overthrown – until now. The trigger was the 10 years that he spent covering the Lucy Blackman case, in which a young British woman who was hostessing in a Tokyo club went missing in July 2000 and her body didn’t turn up for seven months. When she was found, her remains had been hacked into eight pieces and hastily disposed of in a shallow cave near the seaside home of the man who had been arrested for her disappearance.
Parry and I spoke for an hour and a half at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan before he flew to London to launch “People Who Eat Darkness”, his definitive account. The result of that was a story for The Weekender magazine. Below are more of the fascinating insights that Parry had on the case and Japan in general. He started, ominously enough, with a warning:
‘Joji Obara is very litigious, and he has sued me, and he has sued other journalists. He lost his case against me. He has won small amounts from other people who have made mistakes. And we have published this under the assumption that he would sue us. I have spent a lot of time with lawyers in London and in Tokyo who have literally gone over every word to make sure that there is nothing that we would lose a cause on. And there isn’t, it is totally sound.’
Here is a selection of what followed.
DE: Did the case bring about any changes in the Japanese police?
Richard Lloyd Parry: It certainly brought about changes in the British police. Before, victim support ended at the shores of the UK. But now the metropolitan police in London have offices for people whose families come to grief overseas. Within Japan, I am not sure. I think that it may have made one difference and that’s that when Lindsay Hawker went missing, the police came in for a lot of criticism, and they didn’t cover themselves with glory, but they did react very quickly. She went to meet Tatsuya Ichihashi I think on a Sunday morning, and didn’t come back home on a Sunday night and was reported missing on a Monday morning. And Monday afternoon the police were around at his house. Now, they let him slip through their fingers, but they were very fast. They didn’t react that fast with Lucie Blackman.
This is only a guess, but I suspect that now, any local detectives in different parts of Japan, if any Western woman, a foreigner, goes missing on their patch, they are going to remember Lucie Blackman and take it seriously quite early on. Because that case got so political, I mean the British prime minister raised it with the Japanese prime minister, it doesn’t get any more political than that if you are a policeman. So I think that everyone is on notice now that these sort of things can escalate and become international news stories in no time, so you want to make sure that you take them seriously in the start.
However, having said that, I don’t think that the Japanese police’s broad methods and their attitudes to victims and crimes have changed.
DE: Is there something more that we can learn about Japanese contemporary culture, the so-called hikikomori (shut-ins) or otaku (nerds/rabid enthusiasts) from Obara?
RLP: One naturally seeks out general lessons like that. The question is not only what Obara is, it’s what does he represent? I think his story cast light on aspects of Japan and Japanese society, such as as the position of Zainichi Koreans, this large minority who live almost invisibly to most of us, and the Japanese legal system, that it can be played by someone who is determined and isn’t going to give up.
At the same time, I have to be honest and say that he is an absolutely unique individual. He is not characteristic of Japan at all. If anything, he sort of shows up how safe it is and how very rare this kind of thing is.
Imagine if you had this kind of hostess club system in any other city, like London or New York or LA, there would be date rapes every week. They are like sweet shops for date rapists, because you have these women who are financially motivated to go on dates with men they don’t know and get into their cars. If you don’t get these dohans, these arranged dates, you lose your job.
These clubs only really exist in Japan, and one reason why they couldn’t exist anywhere else is that they would be too dangerous. The fact that Joji Obara got away with it for so long is partly because no one else was really trying it. People have speculated that there were others like him, and certainly women in the mizu shobai (the “water trade” or night time entertainment business) do come to grief time to time, but I don’t think that this is the tip of the iceberg.
DE: There are these other characters who insert themselves in the story, such as the S&M club.
RLP: And they had nothing to do with the story, it was a complete red herring. Even that, that whole S&M subculture was exposed by this story – at least to me – but in fact those S&M guys didn’t hurt anyone, really, it was all talk, it was big talk. And they were also bizarrely cozy and approachable. There was a scene I describe where Tim Blackman goes around to meet this guy who has rung up the hot line, saying “I have got this information, and they go around and he gives them a cup of tea, and they gradually realize that they are in a porno studio. And yet there is that sense that you often get here of very sleazy undertakings are being accomplished in an incongruously homely way.
Like these sex clubs in Shinjuku, I went to one once years ago and the thing that struck me far more than the depravity on the revolving stage is the little lady who took my ticket at the top of the stairs. I mean, she could have been at the ofuro (bathhouse) taking your ticket.
DE: What were the biggest surprises for you about Japan, after all your time covering events in the country?
RLP: One of the bigger surprises, and, I suppose, one of the strongest points the book makes is the unworldliness and naiveté of the Japanese police. Everyone knows, and it is perfectly true, that Japan is miraculously safe and crime free as advanced societies go, and my appreciation for that has increased rather than the opposite from researching this book. And the Japanese police often take credit for that, but actually Japan is safe despite them, not because of them.
They are superb at what in Britain is called community policing, which involves being visible on every junction. On every junction, there is a koban (police box). And they are very good at that, and interacting with people, giving people directions, helping old ladies crossing the road, being on the spot if there is any kind of vehicle collision.
But there is real crime and then there is extraordinary crime. With a lot of robberies, sexual crime and murder, I don’ think that their clean up rate is too dismal. They are all right when they are dealing with the standard Japanese criminal. But they depend to a staggering degree on confessions. I learned this, and I read a bit around this, academic writing about Japanese prosecutors, that without confession, the case isn’t really considered a watertight case. And they are able to get confessions, partly because I think that Japanese criminals are inclined to confess, and they have 23 days to get a confession. So they don’t actually need to beat people up and abuse them. Twenty-three days is a long time, and you don’t have an automatic right to see your lawyer.
DE: In the end, it actually feels very refreshing that in a story like this you don’t try to force some conclusion on the reasons why Obara acted the way he did.
RLP: I think that when I started out, I was expecting to crack Joji Obara like a nut. And I guess I imagined it like a puzzle, like if I succeeded is that I would find a solution for it. There would be a secret. But I don’t think there is. And perhaps for people like that, the secret is that there is nothing there. That what explains his behavior is not any kind of positive evil, to use that problematic word, but a lack of capacity to make any kind of human relationships.
I was digging and digging and trying to find out more and feeling frustrated, and you know there is a whole literature about serial killers and psychopaths. I hesitate to use that word, and no psychiatric evaluation has ever been made of him, so I don’t know whether the word psychopath means anything very much or whether it applies to him. But one of the things that is often said of people who are labeled as psychopaths is that they are very boring. There is very little to say about them except to describe their actions, They lack personality really, because they don’t have empathy and they don’t form relationships. And if you strip relations away from human beings, then what is there left really? Except for just biological drives. So in the end, I stopped worrying that he didn’t seem very interesting, and thought that might be the most interesting thing about him.
DE: Because of this, the book feels like it is a corrective to the typical serial killer-style profile.
RLP: It is very easy to play Doctor Freud. There are a suggestive things about his background and past that we know about him, the immigrant parents; the sudden rise from poverty to wealth and the dislocation that brings; the physical dislocation when he left his home as a child in Osaka; living as a rich teen with no adult supervision. You could look at all of those things and say “Aha, this is why his personality became distorted”. But lots of people suffer these dislocations and don’t become serial rapists.