I IMAGINED MYSELF THERE and could almost feel the cheap leather sofa on my skin, the smoky air in my throat, the glare of lights reflected off the mirrored walls – a design standard in Tokyo hostess clubs, meant to make the cramped space appear bigger.
While the case brought a huge level of media attention and the revealing of a before-hidden part of Tokyo’s sprawling underworld, for me the story felt familiar. Lucie was my age, my nationality, and we had both worked at Casablanca – me two years before her death.
I had traveled to Tokyo in 1998 as a stopover on my way to Australia, only intending to stay three weeks. By the second week I had forgotten about Australia. I had fallen in love with Tokyo and the women living in my guesthouse knew a way that I could afford to stay – and make some extra money.
A Swedish woman, Nina, took me across the city to the neon-bright Roppongi district. I walked with her past throngs of flyers (hustlers for stripclubs and karaoke bars); talent scouts for hostess clubs; young women in long evening gowns with perfectly sculpted hair, and drunk salarymen. I looked at her in awe as she moved through the red light district with certainty and at a brisk pace. She looked at ease here whereas I had to resist the instinct to stop and stare. Fresh out of small town Scotland, I felt completely out of my element.
We turned just off the main strip and went up to the sixth floor of a thin seven-story building decorated with a bright neon panel listing the many businesses inside. Some were written in kanji and beyond my comprehension; others that were written in katakana I could half understand. One sign, for the second floor stripclub named Seventh Heaven, was in English and bigger and brighter than all the rest.
Slightly unnerved, I slunk into Casablanca behind my new friend. Just a few words and a nod from an unsmiling manager and I was told to start work the next night.
My fellow hostesses had come from Israel, Canada, France, Australia, Colombia, everywhere, because they had heard there was money to be made in the clubs of Tokyo. We were at Casablanca to fund further travels, to buy property, start businesses, or, like Lucie Blackman, to pay off debts back home. We all had an idea of what happened at hostess clubs, some of us had friends who had done it before, but it was mostly quite vague. It didn’t take long, though, to learn the ropes.
A hostess’ job is to provide companionship for male customers after business hours. The many hostess clubs in Japan (and there are also quite a number of male host clubs that cater for women) feature attractive women, both Japanese and foreign, who earn a living by sitting with, talking to and flirting with customers. The hostess fills drinks, lights cigarettes, sings karaoke and makes conversation – often fielding the same questions night after night: Where are you from? Why did you come to Japan? Do you like Japanese men? Can you use chopsticks?
She earns higher commissions by being “requested” by a customer to sit at his table and by asking him to buy higher priced bottles of champagne. My greatest skill in the club was getting my customers to order more and more bottles; it made the dull conversations and long nights go by so much more quickly.
A hostess is also expected by her club’s management to meet her customers outside of work in an arrangement that is known as a dohan. The customer pays a fee for taking the hostess out for dinner and the hostess receives a cut.
In the era that Lucie and I worked the Tokyo clubs imposed a strict dohan quota: usually a hostess had to secure at least one dohan a week or she risked being fired. It was during an out of the club meeting that Lucie disappeared.
I hated doing the dohans. At first I had found a thrill in being taken to Tokyo’s best restaurants and dining on food and drinks I could never have before afforded, but before long it felt embarrassing to be out in public with men who were most often at least twice my age. I shrugged off the potential of extra money by only doing the minimum of one dohan a week. I was never going to be the prized Number One hostess, but still I was content with what I had. I had never expected to make so much money in my life; and for doing so little.
The job and my income gave me an independence that was new to me then at the age of 19, as well as a new found confidence and feeling of power. Most nights in the club I felt strong and that I was the one in control, manipulating men out of money simply by smiling and pretending to enjoy their company when really I was quite often bored almost to tears.
At times, though, it was lonely. I lived only in the nighttime, spending the days exhausted and usually hungover. In time, I became close to the hostesses I worked with. If something upset me at work, they were the only ones I could talk about it with. They were the only ones who knew.
Fearing the reactions of friends and family – because who, after all would believe that the job was just talking and just dinner – I lied to everyone back home about what I was doing in Japan.
I learned reading People Who Eat the Darkness that Lucie and her friend Louise similarly conducted their trip in secrecy. They lied about staying with a family member and said they were working in “a bar”. Louise’s older sister, who first brought up the idea of hostessing, was evasive in her descriptions of what exactly she had been doing in Tokyo years before, her explanation was, in Parry’s words, “vague…and seemed to vary depending on who was being told the story.”
No matter how good it made me feel to be independent, making it in the big city, and earning this kind of money, I could never quite ignore the way other people thought of me for working in a “dirty” job such as hostessing. I caught the looks of other women when I was out on a dohan, or walking home in an evening gown at dawn. For me it was just a feeling of slight shame; for Lucie, the stigma had more serious implications.
Association with this kind of work and the illegality of working on a tourist visa made initial police contact difficult when Lucie went missing. In People Who Eat the Darkness, a hostess club owner recounts a story that illustrates what the people of the Roppongi mizu shobai (an euphemism for the nighttime entertainment business) were up against when trying to deal with the police.
The manager of Club Cadeau, given the name “Kai” in Parry’s book, who I knew and later worked for, tells of taking a hostess from his club to the police station after she had been drugged and most likely assaulted while unconscious: “The officers showed no interest whatsoever to help us or take further action,” he says. In an interview given to TIME magazine in 2001 “Kai” was more explicit in his accusations against the Tokyo police: “I am a club owner, and she was a hostess. They looked down on that. They refused to open a case.”
It was later revealed that several foreign hostesses had been drugged and raped by the same man, Lucie’s accused killer, over a long period but had felt too ashamed of their work or scared to contact the police in fear of arrest or deportation. Those that had tried to make a report had been confronted with the same attitudes that Kai had faced: disinterest or disdain.
Accused murderer Obara took advantage of the low status of women in the mizu shobai to discredit the testimonies of the former-hostesses who later came forward to say he had assaulted them. They were all “little more than glorified prostitutes,” he wrote in a statement to the ‘reporters club’ of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police that is quoted in Parry’s book, suggesting that women in this line of work are not worthy of the same rights as the rest of society.
I followed the Lucie Blackman case closely while back home in the U.K. with occasional flashes of panic. Could it have been me?
The media certainly thought so. Aside from making my story of what I had been doing in Japan two years ago less believable, numerous news reports of young innocent western girls being lured into danger painted a picture of Tokyo that I found it hard to recognize. It was a place where cannibals stalked the streets, Japanese men were ‘obsessed’ with foreigners, and all western hostesses were in grave danger.
It could have been me, I finally decided in order to put my mind at peace, but it would have been very unlikely. Yes, something terrible happened to Lucie Blackman while working as a hostess in Tokyo, but not because she worked as a hostess in Tokyo.
For years I wanted to explain this; feeling maddened reading reports on the case that asked, for example, whether or not her murder was “exquisitely Oriental,” and perhaps, therefore, inevitable. Richard Lloyd Parry put it into the words I had been looking for. Rather than exquisitely anything, he writes, the truth of her death was “sad and mundane.” In a “safe, yet complex society,” with a remarkably low violent crime rate, “she was very, very unlucky.”
Some might say foolish; Lucie’s own brother says in the book that “to go off with a man like that is just silly.” This, though, betrays a lack of understanding of the role of the hostess; meeting men outside of work was part of her job. She had to meet her dohan quota; there was nothing immediately threatening about Obara, and “Japan felt safe; Japan was safe; and under its enchantment they (hostesses) took decisions which they never would have taken anywhere else.”
I made those decisions repeatedly two years before Lucie’s death, and again when I returned. I decided that she was unlucky and that I would not be. She was naïve, but I would always be careful, I lied.
Lucie’s body was eventually found, cut into eight pieces, in a seaside cave a short stroll from one of Obara’s properties.
I use the term “accused” to refer to Joji Obara, for he has never been found guilty of causing her death. Tokyo courts have declared Obara guilty of multiple rapes, the manslaughter of Australian hostess, Carita Ridgway, abduction and the dismemberment and disposal of Lucie’s body, but not her murder. The delay in finding Lucie’s remains meant that cause of death was forensically impossible to prove.
I returned to Tokyo and to Roppongi in 2005, four years after Lucie’s body was discovered. Several of the hostess clubs that I had known had closed down, beaten by the recession. I ended up back at Casablanca, or Greengrass as it had by then changed its name to.
I recognized the same staff and the same customers but in the club we were forbidden from talking about Lucie. Outside, however, customers were quick to gossip; I think that knowing my nationality made them feel that I would be more impressed by their connection to Lucie, however tenuous. Some let me know that they had seen her the night before she left. Some even joked about it, laughing: “You’d better be careful.”
I would love to say something dramatic, like I was so scared by what had happened to Lucie that I refused to go on any more dohans. The truth is that on my return to Tokyo I felt even more pressure to do dohans, and I just was not very good at getting them.
On my first trip I had accepted dohans only because I had to; I never had to ask. By the time of my return, however, expense accounts had shrunk and wallets were tightened. Securing one had become a skill; one that I tried to learn too late.
I remember one afternoon close to the end of a week without a dohan, working through a thick stack of meishi (business cards). I felt something close to degradation as I called every customer, almost begging them to take me on a dohan “as a favor.” Where had the strong, powerful and independent hostess gone? This was desperate.
The dressing room at Casablanca/Greengrass still had a notice pinned to wall that listed every hostess and the number of dohans and “requests” they had succeeded in getting in the past week.
The next evening I went into the dressing room and saw a zero next to my name. I was fired that night.