The Disappearance of a Young Woman Abroad: People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry

In 2000, a young British woman named Lucie Blackman working as a club hostess in Tokyo disappeared after taking a ride with one of her wealthy customers. Her body was found dismembered seven months later in a seaside cave.

People Who Eat Darkness by award-winning British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry is the story of Lucie, her family, her disappearance and the subsequent investigation and legal proceedings of the case. It is also the story of her abductor and killer, Joji Obara.

Before traveling to Japan, Lucie had worked as a British Airways flight attendant until she realized that the grueling schedules and isolation (she was never in any place long enough to make real connections) were too much. She subsequently resigned and, knee deep in debt, accompanied her best friend to Tokyo where they planned to work at a hostess club, an establishment on the fringes of the sex industry and that caters to wealthy Japanese businessmen willing to pay over $100 an hour for female company. The clubs paid handsomely, or at least compared to English teaching, and Lucie believed this to be the quickest way to get back on her feet financially.

The hostess clubs are an interesting phenomenon. There is, supposedly, no sex involved. Attractive women, often foreign, are paid to basically stroke men’s egos. The hostesses exist to pour drinks, light cigarettes, listen to the men and laugh at their jokes. The most difficult part of the job seemed to be boredom. But the women did have pressure; to keep their jobs, they needed to establish their own clientele of regulars, whom the clubs relied on for steady business.

Perhaps Joji Obara was a prospective regular. One evening, the friend receives a cell phone call from a seemingly delighted Lucie. Lucie says that Joji will soon be giving her her own cell phone, and that they are now driving to the seaside. That was the last time her friend ever heard from her.

The book details the long months following Lucie’s disappearance: the role her parents and siblings played in drumming up media and other support to keep the story and investigation alive (Lucie’s father went as far as reaching out to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair); the sometimes infuriating and slow responses of the Japanese police; the way Lucie’s family’s dysfunction played out in each person’s grieving process; and, finally, the identification and discovery of the abductor and murderer, and the final attempts to bring him to justice.

We learn, upon his arrest, that Joji Obara was a serial rapist. In his apartment were detailed records and videotapes of the women he had lured and drugged for thirty years. He used a different name with each woman. Another club hostess had gotten sick and died some years back after spending a night with Obara and complaints had been made, but the police had not followed up.

In the author’s profile of Obara, we learn that he is an ethnic Korean whose parents had immigrated to a poor Korean ghetto in Japan. Though Parry does not excuse Obara’s crimes (most people with difficult pasts do not become rapists and murderers), he paints an illuminating picture of a troubled man with a troubled past, a personal history that became a window into the ugly but often hidden and unspoken realities of Japan’s ethnic minority communities and the prejudices they face.

Parry, too, is honest in his portrayal of Lucie’s family. Her father Tim, who flew to Japan frequently and never tired in his efforts to fight for his daughter, is a confusing portrait of loyalty and self-interest. Where had he been when Lucie was growing up, when he became involved in multiple affairs before finally leaving his family? Why had he accepted a substantial amount of money from the killer during the court trial, in exchange for providing some verbal support? Lucie’s mother and father, who were icy at best before Lucie’s disappearance, became even more hostile after her death. Without judgment, Parry does an admirable job of laying bare the flaws of a family trying to survive a horrific and unspeakable tragedy.

Though some parts felt repetitive, I couldn’t put the book down. I found it simultaneously intimate and chilling. I was fascinated to read about a part of Japanese society that I’d never entered. It is an eye-opening look into Japan’s mizu-shobai, or “water trade,” a euphemism for its diverse night entertainment or sex industry; its criminal investigation/justice procedures (one of which is a heavy reliance on criminal confession and inevitability of cooperation and remorse); and its Korean community and history. On a personal level, the book is an intimate account of a flawed but real family and how they contributed to both creating Lucie and remembering her in her death. And, finally, it is a disturbing story of a human being gone wrong. I remain haunted to this day, by the images of Joji Obara.

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Bookish Miscellany in Tokyo

Well, I’d overestimated my ability to blog while traveling so I apologize for having disappeared! We had a wonderful time in Japan and I am now back, finally getting over a very bad cold that I had caught the day we left for the airport. While my primary goal in Japan after seeing family, friends, and clients was to eat, I also made sure to check out the book scene in Tokyo. Japan has a strong literary and reading culture and was ranked #1 in number of bookstores in 2012 according to The World Cities Cultural Report released that year. Below is a small peak into Japan’s reading world:

First, the bookstores. I visited about seven or eight during my trip. According to The World Cities Cultural Report in 2012, Tokyo had 1,675 bookstores that year. There is also what is known as the Book District in the university town in Jimbocho – a half square kilometer of almost 160 used and rare bookstores. I spent a short afternoon walking around here, wishing that I could read Japanese as most of the books I found were in Japanese (naturally). The Book District is known to be the largest book market in the world.

The Book District

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Junkudo, a popular bookstore chain -There were about 18 active cash registers and a staffer managing the queue. From my experience the major bookstores have as many as 5 to 8 floors of books.

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A display of Haruki Murakami books at Junkudo

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Ernest Hemingway and other western literature in translation at Kinokuniya, Japan’s largest bookstore chain with stores in the U.S., several Asian countries and Australia. They’ve recently remodeled one of the main stores to dedicate the entire top floor to foreign books and Japanese books in translation. I was quite impressed by their selection and the prices were not exorbitant. Wouldn’t it be something to find this kind of selection of foreign books at Barnes & Noble?

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These English-language novels are labeled with corresponding TOEIC scores to assist non-native English speakers in choosing appropriate books. The TOEIC is the Test of English for International Communication, taken by many non-native English speakers who wish to qualify for various work and academic requirements. 

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Japanese literature wrapped to ensure their good condition. I asked Max about these, and he thinks these may be out of print or somehow “special” books, since contemporary books for sale are not wrapped like this. I found shelves and shelves of these at one of the larger and more modern bookstores in the Book District.

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And speaking of wrapped, whenever you buy a book in Japan, you have the option of getting it wrapped (usually in brown paper) for free. At first I thought this was to protect the book – and this is true – but when I started reading my purchase on the train I realized that the book cover holds another benefit: privacy. 

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There are also many fancier book covers for sale at book and stationery stores, meaning that covering up is quite popular in Japan. Here is one that I found. I love Japanese English!

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Some of our western feminist sensibilities might get a jolt when visiting Japan. In some bookstores are sections for “ladies,” but then maybe this is simply the Japanese equivalent of the labels “Chick Lit” or “Women’s Fiction.” (More knowledgeable readers, feel free to weigh in!) This photo is of the “ladies'” comics or manga section at a shopping mall bookstore. (Manga are also protected before purchase by cellophane ties or plastic wrap.)

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And at last, my Japan finds, because I couldn’t visit without bringing back something for myself: Haruki Murakami’s (translated into English) memoir What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, two books on speaking Japanese, a Japanese novella that a friend recommended to me as one way to practice Japanese, and this Kinokuniya tote bag. There were many Japanese books in translation that I wanted to get but I controlled myself, knowing that I can get them cheaper through the internet :-(. Plus I can only carry so much back in my suitcase…

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Have you visited bookstores in other cities? What are your favorites? How is the literary scene in your city?

Greetings from Land of the Rising Sun

And the sun rises early here…like before 4:30. I know, because I’ve been awake since 2:30. Jet lag.

We got in 36 hours ago and have hit the ground running. We’re here for both business and pleasure. I expect to still post when I can, if even just photos.

I might go back to sleep now, so I’ll see you again next week. Or, as the locals say, Mata raishuu!

 

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Booker Prize finalist A Tale for the Time Being tells the intertwined story of a Japanese girl named Nao and a Canadian writer of Japanese heritage named Ruth. Ruth has found a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on shore near her island home off the coast of British Columbia. When she opens the lunchbox, she finds inside a small packet of letters written in French, an old army watch, and a diary handwritten in English. The diary was written by Nao, a teenage girl in Tokyo.

Through Nao’s diary we learn more about her and the circumstances surrounding her decision to write this diary. She and her family had recently moved back to Tokyo after her father lost his tech job in Sunnyvale, California following the dot-com bubble burst. Unfortunately, he has trouble finding work in Japan and falls into a deep depression, which he tries to end through several suicide attempts. Nao becomes the victim of extreme bullying at school, eventually dropping out and also deciding to end her life after witnessing her father’s psychological decline. She does, however, find a spiritual guide in her 104-year-old Buddhist nun great-grandmother, Jiko, through whom she learns the story of her great uncle, Haruki, a kamikaze pilot during WWII and with whom her father shares the same name. Near the end of her story we learn about the parallels between her great uncle and father, and we discover the truth behind Haruki #1’s suicide attack and Haruki #2’s multiple suicide attempts. And yes, we learn to a sufficiently satisfying degree the fate of both Nao and her father.

This is an existential story about conscience, agency, and the meaning and passage of time as well as our role as human beings within this space. At the peak of the story Ruth traverses time and steps into the lives of Nao and her father (or does she?), resulting in a brief moment of magic realism.

The chapters alternate between Nao’s diary and Ruth’s story. Ruth is a fairly successful writer suffering from writers block and living on a remote island. Since discovering the diary, however, Ruth becomes increasingly obsessed with the story of Nao. Who is she? Is she real? Is she still alive? Ruth hypothesizes that her lunchbox was washed away in the Japan tsunami of 2011 and makes effort to hunt down the real Nao and Haruki.

While I loved Nao’s story – Ozeki does a great job of making this intelligent and witty teenage voice come alive – I found Ruth’s chapters to drag a bit. The Ruth chapters are used often to interpret Nao’s diary and to explain the scientific concepts behind such topics as quantum mechanics (to explain how Ruth could have entered Nao’s story briefly at one point), the life cycle of barnacles, etc. Oliver, her husband, is the convenient walking encyclopedia that explains much of these things but all of it felt a bit academic to me, like I was being lectured to. I would sit up straighter whenever Nao’s voice came on and then my mind would sometimes wander when Ruth’s came on. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate Ruth’s perspective or all that she had to offer about philosophy, Buddhism, and science, but I found Nao’s personal story of trying to connect with her suicidal father so engaging that the chapter alternations sometimes felt like an unwelcome interruption and break in flow. I believe there are many readers out there who enjoyed the book precisely because of its interconnections with so many subjects; for me it was a bit much, as I was interested mainly in the more personal aspects of the story.

As for the mood of the book, while I don’t want to give anything away, I will say that it is not all bleak despite the weighty subject matter. There are definitely some parts that were very difficult to read but the story is ultimately heartwarming and rather inspiring. Nao has a lively, engaging voice and somehow the story manages to be serious without being overly dark, funny without being inappropriate. It was, all in all, a thought-provoking and unique/unusual read.

A Quiet Psychological “Thriller”: A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Pale View of Hills (1982) is the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day. It is about a middle-aged Japanese woman, pvh_onlyoublogEtsuko, presumably in the months following the suicide of her elder daughter. Etsuko is from Nagasaki, Japan but has since emigrated to England. A visit from her younger daughter and a dream trigger memories of a mysterious old friend named Sachiko, and Etsuko begins ruminating on that summer back in Nagasaki when they first met, some time after the atomic bombing.

Sachiko is a single mother that summer, with a lonely and equally mysterious child, Mariko. In Etsuko’s reflections we learn of Sachiko’s desperation to move to America, falling for the seemingly empty promises of an American man named Frank. We also learn of Sachiko’s inadequate maternal instincts, as Etsuko continuously finds Mariko alone or lost, but is met by a surprisingly nonchalant attitude from the mother. Mariko is often running away on her own, even in the dark, and spends much time along the river. She is also insistent about her sightings of an unknown woman “beyond the river,” claims that Sachiko constantly dismisses. In fact, Sachiko dismisses so much about her daughter. Near the end of the book, in her preparation to move closer to the U.S., she drowns Mariko’s kittens in an act that sends Mariko running away at night toward the river.

The story moves quietly and at times subtly chillingly, with a frequent sense of forboding. As a reader I wondered how the story of Sachiko and Mariko related to Etsuko and her daughter’s suicide, and then in one unexpected twist in the final ten pages of the book, I understood. Or, I didn’t. I had my interpretation, but I wasn’t sure if it was the “right” one. It was 11:20 p.m. when I got to the last page and I immediately flipped back to page 1 and re-read the first 95 pages to look for clues I may have missed.

The next day I began doing an internet search for analyses of the story. One blogger summed up the different possible interpretations, and I realized I had reached the most commonly held one. Then a day or two later I found this interview with Ishiguro himself, in which he pretty much cleared up his intentions with the story.

This is a book that has really stayed with me. It’s not a thriller in the traditional sense, but a subtle mystery of the human mind: about memory, guilt, coping, and the way we shape our personal narratives as we move through life.

I absolutely loved Ishiguro’s writing. Even more is said in the words that are not spoken and I find this understated style very powerful and appealing. The following passage is the spookiest I can remember ever reading, and it scared me to the point where I couldn’t go into my darkened kitchen to get the glass of water I so needed at 11:30 that night:

The little girl was watching me closely. “Why are you holding that?” she asked.

“This? It just caught around my sandal, that’s all.”

“Why are you holding it?”

“I told you. It caught around my foot. What’s wrong with you?” I gave a short laugh. “Why are you looking at me like that? I’m not going to hurt you.”

Without taking her eyes from me, she rose slowly to her feet.

“What’s wrong with you?” I repeated.

The child began to run, her footsteps drumming along the wooden boards. She stopped at the end of the bridge and stood watching me suspiciously. I smiled at her and picked up the lantern. The child began once more to run.” (page 173)

Ishiguro never reveals what is caught around this woman’s foot, nor does he ever explain why the woman is in this situation or conversation with the girl. We assume the woman is holding a rope, and it’s the second time a scene like this appears. Earlier in the book there is reference to a serial killer and a series of child hangings in Nagasaki. Some questions go unanswered in the story, and Ishiguro in his interviews has admitted to having written a flawed book with too many loose ends, this being his first novel and all. Nevertheless, for me the unspoken adds to the mood of the story and in turn becomes as mysterious and frightening as our minds allow it to be. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the intelligent and quiet thrill of a ride I got in reading A Pale View of Hills, and I’ve since added Ishiguro to my list of must-read authors.

Have you read A Pale View of Hills? How do you feel about unreliable narrators in general and stories with loose ends or endings that are open to interpretation?

Disillusionment in marriage, home, and life: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is Julie Otsuka’s 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novella about Japanese picture brides trying to start new lives in California during the first half of the 20th century.

The book opens with the young women’s journey at sea. They are frightened, nervous, hopeful, excited, and uncertain about what awaits them. They are from different walks of life and from different parts of Japan, but they all have in their hands (or in the sleeves of their kimonos) the photos of hope: handsome, young men who have promised that they can provide for them well in the new country.

Once the brides are literally off the boat, they cannot find the faces to match their photos. The young and handsome businessmen are, in fact, older, haggard, and sometimes cruel farmworkers and laborers. It hits the women at this point that they have been deceived and, unbeknownst to them, that this is only the beginning.

The chapters that follow cover the new wives’ lives over the next few decades: marital rape, infidelity, hard labor and long hours, sexual harassment, the struggles to care for their children, children who reject them and are embarrassed by them, acculturation, racism. The book ends with the mass exodus of these now Japanese-American wives and their families and neighbors to internment camps as per Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order issued shortly after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

I’ve read other longer, more plot-driven books about the immigrant experience and I was surprised at how powerful this experimental novella is. This is both for your information and a warning: Otsuka’s narrator is a lyrical, first person plural. The book doesn’t focus on any single character or even a handful of characters, but instead covers the range of experiences of the collective group of brides. Here is an excerpt from the second chapter, entitled “First Night”:

That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word . . . they took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel . . . They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time . . . they took us for granted and assumed we would do for them whatever it was that we were told . . . they took us violently, with their fists, whenever we tried to resist. They took us even though we bit them. They took us even though we hit them . . . They took us shyly, and with great difficulty, as they tried to figure out what to do. “Excuse me,” they said. And, “Is this you?” They said, “Help me out here,” and so we did . . . They took us with more skill than we had ever been taken before and we knew we would always want them. They took us as we cried out with pleasure and then covered our mouths in shame. (pages 19-22)

I didn’t feel that the narration took away from the intimacy I felt with the characters’ experiences (though admittedly it is a different kind of intimacy) and in fact maybe it is the collective voice that makes this book so powerful: seeing the range of experiences drove home for me how much these women were going through and what it meant to be a picture bride in a country that was, at the time, still very hostile to unfamiliar cultures.

The women in this book arrive as strangers to both their Japanese-American husbands and America. It is a tale about what it’s like to land in hostile and unfamiliar hands, and it is as much about marriage (and its disappointments) as it is about immigration. The issues are heavy but somehow Otsuka’s writing translates the difficulties and hopelessness into something that is emotionally impactful and not bleak. I would have read this book in one or two sittings if I had the uninterrupted time (I read it in three); I thought it was wonderful.

A Mini-Travel Memoir of Japan

I’ve been back a week now, physically; mentally I’ve still got a little ways to go. 😉

Japan was wonderful: hectic, stressful, exhausting. I realize how much, after two years in beautiful and quiet North Carolina, I’ve missed the big city. We could walk to the supermarket, enjoy streets bustling with people, take a commuter train to the museum, a temple, a night club (though not that we did). On the downside, there were days when Max and I did not get home from meeting clients until midnight, days when we had to commute 2 hours each way to get to a work destination. I had to coordinate childcare and drop-off and pick-up schedules with Max and my in-laws. On Father’s Day we needed to call in all the troops: my friend Kathryn and her husband to take Fred from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and my in-laws to take Fred from 5:00-11:00 p.m. Such is life in Japan, where Father’s Day and Sundays do not take precedence over work. We could not live like this long term, which is why we were hungry to relocate to the US. But, for 2 weeks, it felt good to meet our clients face-to-face and to experience the bustle and purpose of an energized life.

And I understood during this trip that there is no longer any point in trying to narrow down a home to one. I inhabit both America and Japan, maybe not physically all the time but always in my heart. I missed Japan because it is where my life transformed into what I have now. I revisited old shopping malls and walked down old streets with an internal camera to the days when Fred waddled beside or ahead of me, his bottom bunchy and big with his diaper, his little legs and feet pat-patting the ground with the delicacy of a newly confident toddler. On the day these memories came at me full blast I was alone; Max was working and Fred wanted to spend the day with his grandparents. I shopped at our favorite mall alone, stroller-free for the first time, and ate at my favorite organic restaurant in peace for the first time. Every time I saw a toddler I saw Fred in my flashbacks as a new mother. Did I ever think that the next time I’d visit this mall that I would come back with only my memories?

The rest I will tell in pictures. I’ll admit that, miraculously, I had turned off my blogging brain during this trip. Not looking for blogging material, I regret that I didn’t take enough pictures. But here are a few:

This is where we – the 3 of us! – stayed. It’s what the Japanese call a “monthly mansion” (apartment). It’s designed for (single) business travelers but the 3 of us squeezed into this mini studio because it was the only option we had within walking distance of Max’s parents. Hotels in Japan charge per person rather than per room, and the closest hotel is about a half hour away. Kathryn opened her American-size home to us and we stayed with her and her family one night.

Jet lag + cramped quarters + work = 1 nasty fight between Max and me the second night we were there. We’ve learned, the hard way, that these fights can simply be filed away under “duress/both equally at fault.”

Giant billboards in Tokyo during the World Cup.

A typical commute home. This photo was taken at around 10:30 p.m. one Thursday night inside the train. That’s my head at the bottom of the picture. (Yes, at 10:30 I really ought to be in bed or in front of my t.v., not commuting on a train!) Believe it or not, this wasn’t even a particularly bad ride; I’ve experienced many others where I felt my bones were about to rip apart, or where I was pressed up against strange men more closely than I have ever been pressed against my own husband. Blech!

In a city as crowded as Tokyo (the station hub Shinjuku is the busiest in the world, with over 3.6 million passengers passing through its 200 exits each day), order is critical. Trains are scheduled to the minute and passengers politely line up to board. The above sign is part of a great campaign to promote train etiquette. If only they had this in New York!

(Top photo): A sign inside the train station announcing the “Women Only” passenger car. Train “gropers” (chikan) are notorious on crowded Tokyo trains, as social misfits have no other way to release their sexual urges other than to anonymously molest women on crowded trains. Men have been known to assemble via the internet and they prey on women who look unlikely to fight back. In my 8 years in Japan, I have been lucky to not have encountered a chikan. Also true is that some women who do not get groped then have a complex, wondering, “What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t anyone want to touch me?” Ahem. No thank you.

(Bottom photo): A group of OL’s (“Office Ladies”) on their lunch break. These are women workers hired to do clerical work. The difference between American secretaries and Japanese OL’s, though, is that the OL position is inherently sexist and dead-end. Not only do they do menial tasks, they are required to pour tea for and otherwise serve the (usually) male managers and clients. They are also the only employees required to wear uniforms.

When I first arrived in Japan in 1999 I had stayed in a women’s college dormitory. I was held to the same rules as the 18 and 19 year-old students, meaning I had to adhere to a daily 9:00 p.m. curfew. I was allowed to stay out until 10:00 provided that I filled out paperwork 3 days in advance and received all the required signature stamps from the senior dorm staff. (A colleague finally rescued me by inviting me to share her apartment.) If only blogging existed then!

All this to say, I’m lucky to be an American woman.

A beautiful, serene temple tucked away in the center of bustling and ultra-modern Tokyo. I love the bottom picture of a businessman taking a quiet lunch break in the temple.

Noticeably missing are family pictures. We came home with no photos of Fred’s grandparents! We were able to celebrate Max’s father’s 85th birthday the day before we left, and we went to a stunning restaurant located in the middle of a traditional Japanese garden. As is our way in Japan, though, we were constantly rushing, and Max had brought the camera but left the battery still recharging in the apartment. Such was our time in Japan. We keep thinking, next trip we’ll be more relaxed…next trip we’ll do it right.