I normally fast forward through any and all recommendations slash advertorials on podcasts, but on the few occasions I haven’t skipped ahead I’ve heard a number of podcasters recommending English-born, Japan-based journalist Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness.
The book is a deep dive into a case that gripped people across two countries and spans all manner of language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. At its centre is the mysterious 2000 disappearance of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old former British Airways air hostess working illegally as a hostess for quick cash in Tokyo.
Blackman had gone there short term with a friend and was hoping to work under the table to pay off some debt. But she vanished during an outside-hours meeting an unidentified client outside the club in a practice called dohan.
Common misconceptions (mostly among westerners) are that hostesses are prostitutes. The reality is more nuanced than that, with most flirting with lonely businessmen and trying to increase the bars’ business and intake. Yet even within Japan, there are myriad variations on the ‘hostess’ role, with the subtleties largely lost on us lumbering westerners.
Fairly common, dohans offer hostesses a chance to earn extra money and mostly involve going to dinner with clients outside of the usual bar setting. In fact, dohans are a bit like add-on sales. Failure to obtain them is considered underperforming and can result in hostess’ dismissal.
In Blackman’s case, the particular dohan during which she disappeared apparently involved being promised an additional gift of a trip to the beach a mobile phone. The two seem fairly silly things to go out alone with a stranger for, but it was 2000, when mobile phones were prohibitively expensive, and Blackman was from the UK, which isn’t known for its spectacular beaches.
Either way, Blackman’s disappearance focused the spotlight on hostessing practices little discussed and even less understood. And it captured international imagination and touched on some concerning stereotypes. Blackman being young, pretty, blonde, and British no doubt helped with garnering some of the media coverage.
People Who Eat Darkness is divided roughly into two parts. The first part tackles Black’s messy, mostly pre-Japan personal life. The second spans her disappearance and endeavours to contextualise and unpack some of the post-disappearance actions, particularly those of her father, who didn’t behave as he ‘should’.
It’s a fascinating tale, albeit one that is at times challenging to comprehend.
What I struggled with most with this book, which is no fault of the writer’s and which seems to be what most people struggled with while the case was active, is that the family—particularly the parents—are not at all likeable or sympathetic.
Of course, you can be fascinated by people who aren’t endearing and you can’t choose who tragedy happens to, but the parents individually and together seem quite toxic and, frankly, foolish.
There is mother Jane’s vehemently embittered hate for her ex-husband, which puts their children in a difficult position of choosing one over the other at various times and prevents the couple from presenting a united front in the effort to find out what happened to their daughter.
There is also the recklessness and ridiculous—almost partying-like—approach the father took with little thought to what effects his actions might have or, simply, how they might look. Case in point: first, taking money from the accused murderer and second, spending money on a new boat.
I wholly recognise that it’s easy to be an armchair critic and that the machinations of such an experience can only truly be understood from the inside. I also concede that there were some pretty unconscionable psychics and other cranks preying on the emotionally vulnerable family.
Either way, I spent the bulk of this book marvelling that a family could wilfully be so utterly, incomprehensibly and seemingly deliberately messy. More than once, I recalled Leo Tolstoy’s famed Anna Karenina quote that all happy families are alike and unhappy families are unhappy in unique ways.
To be fair, maybe I am, as Lloyd Parry suggests, simply like most people who have encountered this crime:
People are afraid of stories like Lucie’s, stories about meaningless, brutal premature death; but most of them cannot own up to their fear. So they take comfort in the certainty of moral judgements, which they brandish like burning branches waved in the night to keep off the wolves.
Judgement aside, it perhaps explains why I found the second half of the book far more compelling than the first—I ploughed through the first half only to sate my fascination with both Japan and the murder mystery and not the minutiae of the family’s self-inflicted drama.
Because it’s in the second half of the book that we encounter the murderer and learn both how the crime unfolded and how the police and legal system tried to bring him to justice. Without giving away too much, this character and everything that surrounds him is utterly, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction bizarre.
What becomes clear is that this is not just a story about a young and naïve British woman, but one that envelopes people from Japan, Britain, Korea, and even Australia.
Lloyd Parry himself notes that he set out to get inside the murderer’s head, but soon realised that was impossible. Irrespective, employing his understanding of both British and Japanese cultures, he crafts an insightful, culturally sensitive story that gives us the best insight we’re likely to get about this tragic situation.
Which is to say that the Blackmans might test your credulity and patience, but Blackman’s is a crime worth documenting if nothing else but for the sake of other travellers’ awareness and crime prevention.