Saturday, November 29, 2003

Race, Sex and Crime in Japan

This story has all the ingredients for a gigantic media circus to develop - a young, blonde, British "hostess" found hacked up into eight pieces, and a wealthy Japanese playboy accused of murdering her, as well as drugging and raping as many of 400 other women over a 20-year period, 150 of them white foreigners (or "Westerners", as the euphemism goes nowadays).

On May 4, 2000, Lucie Blackman, wearing high heels and a silver and black ensemble coordinated to match her Samsonite luggage, disembarked from a 13-hour Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Tokyo and stepped into Japan's national nightmare. A former British Airways stewardess who prided herself on being, "chic, sophisticated and smart," Lucie sometimes did her hair even before going to the gym for a workout. So it made sense she would have her hair freshly coiffed now, the natural blond mane cut straight and falling across her striking, almost patrician English features like a curtain of glass beads. Concealing her blue eyes were a pair of oversize, Gucci-style sunglasses. Her nails were perfect little half-ellipses, the cuticles neatly trimmed.

Lucie's face, more than any other, would eventually become synonymous with millennial Tokyo's anxieties, aspirations and insecurities. When she vanished two months later into the Tokyo night, the subject of speculation, rumor and salacious gossip, she became the poster child, literally, of a nation that was suddenly unsure of where it was going and of what was happening to it.


Lucie had come because she had heard there was a fortune to be made in this glittering district simply by pouring drinks and making small talk with Japanese businessmen. To Western girls with a streak of adventure, this Japan has a curious appeal. They find out about hostessing while touring Asia, perhaps, and encountering women returning from Japan who tell stories about the big money. Some answer employment agency ads in overseas newspapers to work in Japan as "dancers" or "entertainers"—only to find themselves hostessing. Others are just passing through Tokyo, perhaps as the first stop on an Asian itinerary, and see there is easy money to be made rapping to inebriated Japanese. It was a friend's older sister in London who first told Lucie about the opportunities for an attractive young woman in Japan.

Very loosely descended from the geisha house tradition, hostess bars hire out women by the hour to act as companions for customers. Hostesses are not prostitutes; they are more like paid, platonic girlfriends. They may choose to sleep with a client, they may not. Although there are no official numbers on how many women work in hostess bars, it's estimated that hundreds of thousands labor throughout Japan in what is surely a multibillion-dollar industry. For the salaryman customers, hostess bars, with their posh atmosphere, beautiful women and steady flow of drinks, are a choice venue in which to try to impress a client or close a business deal. Most hostess clubs employ Japanese and other Asian women, but beginning in the early 1980s, more and more began to stock Western women. Of all the hostesses in Japan, the highest paid tend to be pretty, English-speaking, Caucasian, blond. Lucie met every requirement.


Lucie Blackman hated it all when she first arrived. The hours. The pressure to go out on dohans. She had worked for two years on BA's long-haul routes to Africa and the Americas, but she had seldom been away from her family home—where she still lived with her mother and younger sister and brother—in the London suburb of Sevenoaks, Kent, for more than four days in a row. After arriving in Tokyo, she phoned and e-mailed family almost daily, telling them she was homesick.

She had quit her job as a stewardess because, she complained to her sister, it left her feeling "permanently jet-lagged." Her annual salary at BA had been $18,700. A good hostess could earn that in two months. Before even boarding that flight for Tokyo she was anti-cipating the hostessing windfall, charging $1,400 to her credit card to buy a new bed that she planned to use when she returned from Japan. "Lucie was not the most intelligent person," says her sister Sophie, "nor was she stupid. She did the things a normal 21-year-old would do."

Lucie e-mailed her sister that working in the club was "like being an air hostess without the altitude." She phoned her mother once to tell her that a customer had offered her "a fantastic sum of money to sleep with him." Lucie said she laughed off the proposal, reminding her mother that her job was to pour drinks, light cigarettes and "discuss boring subjects like volcanoes." She confessed to Sophie that sometimes her customers spoke English with such thick accents, all she could do was nod. "I can't believe I am paid so much money just to pretend I am listening to them," she reported.


On July 1, a Saturday, Lucie went on a dohan with a customer from Casablanca. The man, whose name Lucie did not share with anyone, had offered her a prepaid mobile phone if she would accompany him to a restaurant near the beach. Her roommate Louise was still in bed in their six-tatami matted room when Lucie left. Louise recalls glimpsing Lucie on her way out in sandals and a black one-piece dress, and a silver necklace with hearts on it. They had plans to see each other in the evening, along with Scott. Lucie phoned Louise three times that day, first at 1:30 to say she had met her lunch date, then at 5:00 saying, "I'm being taken to the sea" and finally at 7:00 when she said, "I'll be back in half an hour." She phoned Scott a few minutes later with the same message. No one heard from her again.

The next day, Phillips received a call on her cell phone from a man who spoke in a thick accent and identified himself as Akira Takagi. He told her: "Lucie has joined a newly risen cult. She is safe and training in a hut in Chiba."


Most English-speaking Caucasian women working in Roppongi's hostess clubs don't realize they are part of the mizushobai. Within it they occupy a privileged position compared with the tens of thousands of Asian women who work in storefront shops churning out sex acts for prices listed on menu boards. Nor do hostesses encounter the obvious dangers faced by the hundreds of South American women, some as young as 16, who openly work as prostitutes on central Tokyo's backstreets.

Within the mizushobai, Caucasian hostesses are essentially paid the most for doing the least, but this does not shield them from stigma. "Some hostesses don't consider themselves part of the mizushobai because they are not having sexual intercourse," says Mizuho Fukushima, member of the Upper House of Japan's parliament and a high-profile women's rights advocate. "But people outside consider what they are doing part of the sex industry." Before she entered government, Fukushima in 1989 helped establish a private center called Help, which has assisted more than 2,000 women—most of them Asian but including an increasing number from Russia and South America—who have suffered from abuses such as coerced prostitution, physical intimidation and assault. Fukushima says, "I have taken foreign women who have been beaten up to the police or to the immigration department who have said to my face, 'What are you doing here? These women are here illegally.'" She adds that the officials try to justify turning away such cases, arguing: "What were these women expecting when they came here illegally?"

What is most troubling, says Fukushima, are the foreign women, mostly Asian, who have disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances over the years. "They are undocumented, so we don't have good numbers," she says. "The media barely covered this problem until Lucie's case. All of a sudden it was news when a white girl disappeared."


If there is one career path that captures the essence of post-bubble Japan, it is "failed real estate speculator." During the '80s and early '90s, real estate speculation had been the frothy center of Japan's double-espresso economy, with developers and brokers becoming that era's version of the more recent dotcom billionaires. Speculators like Joji Obara were the heroes of Japan's go-go era, driving their Bentleys and Rolls Royces, living in their mansions, dating their exotic blond girlfriends. This was the period, remember, when Japan was going to take over the world. Men like Joji Obara cast themselves as the Fibe Mini warriors on the vanguard of this Japanese invasion. Naoko Tomono, a journalist who has written extensively about Lucie's case for the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshon, offers a surprising insight into how some men in Obara's age group perceive his infamy as a serial rapist: "They respect him as a man comfortable going to expensive bars and picking up Western girls." Susumu Oda, professor of psychiatry at Gakuin University, who has worked with authorities on other high-profile criminal cases, says Obara is a "peculiar symbol" of men of his generation, "because he was obsessed with Caucasian women."

Cases like this one give the lie to ridiculous hypotheses of the sort advanced by Steve Sailer, according to which the disparities in interracial relationships are rooted in biological differences in "masculinity" and "femininity", with black males at the top for the former and Asian males at the bottom, and Asian females supposedly the most feminine and black women the least. If that were so, why would so many1 Japanese men be fixated on blonde white women?

Instead of resorting to far-fetched biological theorizing that assumes humans are automatons impervious to cultural influences, we are better off looking at the more down to earth and much better established factors - the influence of western advertising on perceptions of beauty everywhere around the world, and the nexus of racism and military-cum-economic superiority that established as a seemingly self-evident fact that "whatever is white is right" in the eyes of billions around the globe. Japanese men aren't born lusting after yellow-haired women, anymore than the men of our day are born drooling for the skeletal figures we regard as beautiful in our day. Physical beauty isn't an entirely culturally mediated perception, signs of health and youth being regarded positively in every culture of which there is a historical record, but it isn't all that hardwired either, once we get beyond such basics. If things were really as simple as genetically deterministic theories like to make them out to be, there would hardly be any need for the sheer notion of "fashion" to begin with. All sorts of physical types come in and out of fashion, and the androgynous beauties of the swinging 1920s are in sharp contrast to the buxom blondes of the Marilyn Monroe era.

As cruel as it may be to say so of someone who died in such a heinous manner, Lucie Blackman was certainly no great beauty by Western standards, though she wasn't ugly either. What she did possess was a set of physical traits - blondness, whiteness and Britishness - that rendered her a potent symbol of lustful aspiration amongst the denizens of the Japanese water-trade (the literal meaning of "mizu shobai"). Her great misfortune happened to lie in crossing paths with a sexual predator determined to live out the fantasies she embodied to him, at any cost, even of her life.

(1) And there are indeed many such men, as I have seen with my own eyes in Tokyo. To be white, blonde and female in that city is to be continuously bombarded with indecent proposals, however (un)attractive one might be.