Category Archives: Books on Japan

People Who Eat Darkness (闇を食う人々)An amazing book and a tissue sample of Japan's social pathological elements

People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman*
By Richard Lloyd Parry (Jonathan Cape 404pp £17.99)

When the disappearance of Lucie Blackman made the news, I was covering it as a reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. By necessity rather than by choice, I was already familiar with the darker side of the country: I had spent 1999 to 2000 as a police reporter assigned to the 4th District, home of Japan’s largest adult entertainment area, Kabukicho. Despite being from different papers, Richard Lloyd Parry and I worked the story together, exchanging information, contacts and tips. There was a chance that Lucie might still be alive, being held captive somewhere. The hope that reporting on it might make a difference superseded any journalistic rivalry. Now Parry has written a compelling book about the depravity of man, the difficult pursuit of justice, and how we deal with the wrongful deaths of those whom we loved.

Lucie, a young English woman, came to Japan to have fun and make money as a hostess in order to pay off her debts. She never went home. Her alleged killer, Joji Obara, is a clever man and a graduate of the law department of an elite Japanese university. I write ‘alleged’ because, despite all the circumstantial evidence that he was responsible for her death, the Japanese courts have only convicted him of dismembering her corpse. The charges were of rape resulting in death, but they have not yet been proven to the satisfaction of the judiciary. Obara knows that without a full confession, the Japanese police are handicapped, and prosecutors loathe such a case. He also knew enough of the law to prey on foreign hostesses. Hostessing is not allowed on foreign visas. If foreign hostesses go to the police as victims of sexual assault, they themselves are arrested and often deported, and no charges are generally brought against their assailants. (For years, human traffickers in Japan exploited this same fact.)

Every year, roughly 80,000 people go missing in Japan. The police don’t investigate each disappearance, or even a significant fraction of them. Perhaps if Tim Blackman, Lucie’s father, hadn’t raised hell, the case would never have been seriously investigated. But once the Tokyo Police realised that this was not just another missing persons case, they pursued it with vigour and determination. While the police are generally treated fairly in the book, Parry implies that they were uninterested in the case, and this is not so.

Parry’s book describes in detail Tim Blackman’s frustration with the police efforts to track down the phone number of Akira Takagi, one of his daughter’s friends, a few days after she vanished. Explanations of why they couldn’t do it probably seemed disingenuous to the Blackman family. I’m sure they were. The truth is that because of the no-caller-ID setting Takagi had placed on his phone, it wasn’t possible to trace the call. According to Shoji Takao’s Keiji No Banka (‘The Detective’s Dirge’), an in-depth account of the police investigation written with the aid of the detectives who worked the case and published in Japan last year, a huge amount of time and energy was spent examining the fraction of recoverable phone records and developing. a lead on the case.

The Japanese police as a general rule do not reveal information about an ongoing investigation to anyone, because it would hurt their case in court. The usual practice is to conceal critical data that only the criminal could possibly know, in order to obtain an ironclad confession that can’t be explained away by saying, ‘I was just repeating what I read in the papers.’ If the police come off looking lazy, bureaucratic and disinterested, it’s simply because they care more about getting the perpetrator then they do about social niceties. One detective who worked the case put it this way: ‘The best thing we can do for the family is to see that justice is served. Everything else is secondary.’

One of the ironies of the case was that some of the key sources who helped the police track down Obara were yakuza affiliates of a Tokyo-based crime group. They are not generally good Samaritans but there are three things that the group bans and that are cause for immediate expulsion: theft, robbery and rape. Obara was scum even in their eyes. When Lucie’s body was found, one member of the group contacted me with a message: ‘If Obara doesn’t get the death penalty, we could administer it. Prisons are full of accidents. Let Mr Blackman know. If that’s what he wants, we’ll see that justice is done.’

Obara has also been found guilty of raping several other women and of killing Carita Ridgway, a well-liked girl from Perth, Australia. (Ridgway and I had a mutual friend, a classmate of mine who worked at the same hostess bar as Ridgway and whose testimony was used to convict Obara. It’s a small, ugly world sometimes.) People Who Eat Darkness is also about these other women, and the suffering of their family members and friends. Furthermore, it is an indictment of Japanese society, in which sexual crimes against women, especially those working in the adult entertainment world, frequently go uninvestigated. Rape is a crime punishable by as little as three years in jail; at the time Lucie vanished, the penalty was only two years. Even today, a first-time offender, if he admits guilt and pays damages to the victim, may still get a suspended sentence.

Parry has spent years researching and writing this book. It allows readers to experience Japan’s S&M subculture, the police bureaucracy, and the tightly controlled press club system, parts of Japan that most Japanese never know. One also feels one is reliving the tragedy as a friend of the family, with all the agony it involves. It’s a journey worth taking, if you have the stomach for it.

I never passed on that message from the yakuza. After finishing Richard Lloyd Parry’s book, part of me wishes that I had. However, there are some choices that I think people should be spared from making. We are all responsible for our own choices. The choices that Obara made ruined the lives of many. The choices of Lucie’s family and some courageous victims are what put him behind bars. Like every exceptional book, there is a moral to this tale. But it’s up to readers to determine for themselves just what that moral really is.

Note: In June this year (2011) Richard Parry had a book talk at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan that was enlightening and informative. My live (at the time) tweet feed on the conference can be read by clicking here. Thanks to @nofrills on Twitter for compiling it. Many other related books in Japanese can be found at the bottom of the page.

*This review was originally published in the British periodical, The Literary Review and is reprinted with their position. It’s a great magazine for those who love reading.

Book Review: 図解裏社会のカラクリ

Purposely vague, shadowy and difficult to understand, the Japanese underworld is a puzzling and ever-changing realm of secrecy, even for those who study it. There’s no quick-and-dirty tutorial or handbook for learning about the seedier side of life (there is, however, OJT–a different topic all together), and while it’s simple for some gifted purveyors of all that creeps between the cracks of society to just dive right in, some of us need to take things slow and get our bearings before dipping our toes into the sleaze and corruption.

Zukai - Ura Shakai no KarakuriBut fear not, fellow students, because there is a way in. 図解裏社会のカラクリ (Zukai Urashakai no Karakuri – Illustrated Guide to How the Underworld Works) documents the ABCs of the “anti-social” world in easy-to-manage two-page bites, one page covering a topic in relatively simple Japanese then summing up the key points with textbook-worthy illustrations on the facing page. The concept is simple and works for the broad range of topics available, from the down and dirty on yakuza traditions to how the ghouls and ghosts of the ura shakai have their fun.

The first chapter does indeed begin with Japanese organized crime groups, laying out simply the hierarchy of organizations, “A day in the life” of an underling and a kumi-cho, and how exactly that whole pinky finger thing works. I actually received this book after lamenting about seemingly archaic customs harboring unusual words like sakazuki and gobun kyodai. But there it is, laid out all nicely in the first section. Ever wondered what kind of duds an Armani-wearing yak might sport on the weekend? What the layout of a typical office might look like? Where gangsters get their guns? All covered in easy to understand brevity.

Zukai Urashakai no Karakuri goes even further in the section section, hitting up lesser-known but just as intriguing points under the surface of society, like the legal boundaries of private investigators, the difference between right wingers and left wingers, and the business cycle of peeping tom tosatsu videos. “Do assassins really exist?” the question is posed atop one of the illustrated pages. Yes, the book says, and they’re oftentimes foreigners who can escape penalties for the crime by returning to their home country.

Underworld entertainment–sex, drugs, rock n’ roll with a splash of gambling–is covered in the last section. The invasion of Japanese ladies into foreign streetwalkers’ territory, the affects of drug addiction, fake DVDs, even the Shinjuku gay district. Each entry is written very matter-of-factly, neither condoning nor criticising, and graciously avoids being as detailed as a “how to” book while still providing a decent explanation. The beauty is that Zukai covers not those nitty-gritty things one would normally feel apprehensive about asking a local, but actually things your average Taro would have no idea about. A quick flip through would do wonders for impressing your friends with intimate knowledge of underworld trivia–as long as you don’t mind coming off as a creep.

Admittedly, though, finding some of the vocab used here was a pain in the ass, both uncommon terms and slang. Even with a normal dictionary, Zukai isn’t exactly a book to read while relaxing in the park (especially if you’re self conscious about getting strange glances) and is best done with an Internet connection nearby. Although this certainly isn’t oriented towards an audience that would typically need it, a smear of furigana would have been appreciated here and there. What the book really needs is a quick-lookup glossary in the back with things like 破門回状 and マルチ商法. Small complaints, though, considering Zukai was written for native Japanese speakers with little to no knowledge of the underworld.

This is a book that, as you read it, you’d wish someone had made something just as fun to peruse for your own country. I’m waiting for a follow-up, perhaps some special editions that go into further detail about uyoku, the geino-kai, perhaps something about this ‘wave’ of foreign crime Japan seems to be constantly experiencing. Or perhaps, if Jake can pick up an illustrator, that will be our next project here at JSRC?