How the bubble burst for Lucie's alleged killer Five years ago Lucie Blackman, a British bar hostess, was missing in Japan. As the trial of Joji Obara, the man accused of her murder, continues, our correspondent profiles the ‘playboy’ with a dark past and £122m of debt
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How the bubble burst for Lucie's alleged killer Five years ago Lucie Blackman, a British bar hostess, was missing in Japan. As the trial of Joji Obara, the man accused of her murder, continues, our correspondent profiles the ‘playboy’ with a dark past and £122m of debtRichard Lloyd Parry THROUGHOUT his strange life, and the various identities that he created for himself, Joji Obara fled from cameras; even today, four years into his interminable trial, there are only two images of him in public circulation. The first is from the early 1970s when he was a university student in Tokyo: a shy smile, youthful skin, a young man poignantly uncorrupted. The second is the sketch by the courtroom artist of Obara as he was seen in the Tokyo District Court last month: thinning black hair, patchy goatee, crumpled charcoal suit, flanked by two unsmiling guards. Thirty years separate the two images, a period in which Joji Obara left few public traces. In Britain, he is known as the man accused of killing the young British woman Lucie Blackman, the Tokyo bar hostess whose dismembered body was dug up from a Japanese beach near his apartment in 2001. Japanese remember that he is charged with six other rapes and one other count of “rape leading to death”. Newspaper accounts refer to him without elaboration as a “property developer” and “playboy”. But these vague terms hardly begin to do justice to his extraordinary career.
It reads like a metaphor for Japan’s bubble economy, the period between the 1980s and early 1990s when the country’s economy went up like a rocket only to crash down like an anvil. In the three decades between university and criminal prosecution, Joji Obara inherited a fortune; today he has debts of £122 million. He went from being the despised son of an immigrant to a member of the elite; now he is on trial as a serial rapist. And in an age of extravagant, excessive consumption, he lived his life on the basis that anything could be bought, and that those who had money were entitled to everything they wanted: pleasure, status, immunity from the law and, above all, the bodies of women.
He was born Kim Sung Jong in 1952 to Korean parents in Osaka. His father was a poor immigrant who built himself a fortune in taxis, property and pachinko, the addictive Japanese version of bagatelle. At 15, Kim Sung Jong was sent to the preparatory school for the private and prestigious Keio University in Tokyo. There he studied politics and law. It was at this time that he underwent surgery on his eyes to make them larger and less oriental, and he took on a new, Japanese name, Seisho Hoshiyama.
When Seisho was 17, his father died in Hong Kong. Seisho shared the vast inheritance with his two brothers and, at the age of 21, underwent another shift of identity, taking on Japanese nationality and the name of Joji Obara.
Those who know him are convinced that his strange upbringing played a part in forming his personality. But how exactly? A child of exiles who loses his father suddenly, while still young, who cuts himself off from his family, changes his name and even his face, and who becomes so rich that he never has to work . . . the potential for dislocation and maladjustment is obvious. But there are many people who have suffered more, and few of them have become half as maladjusted as Joji Obara.
Japanese magazine reports suggest that Obara began to show signs of a sexually predatory nature in the early 1980s. He was arrested in October 2000, and the videos of his sexual escapades are said to number 200; for nearly 20 years he is believed to have raped women at an average rate of more than ten a year — possibly more, as these are just the ones that he filmed.
His modus operandi is set out in court documents concerning a Canadian woman named Donna whom he is alleged to have raped in 1996. Donna worked as a hostess in Roppongi, a cramped half-square mile of Central Tokyo containing a concentration of bars, pubs, cabarets, nightclubs, karaoke bars, lap-dancing joints and hostess bars.
The court documents say that Obara met Donna in March 1996 at a club in Roppongi, and introduced himself as “Kazu” (he had a roster of pseudonyms, including “Yuji” and “Koji”). He took her to his apartment in the seaside town of Zushi, south of Tokyo, and gave her a drink which he described as “a very rare herb wine from the Philippines”. After one sip she fell unconscious. When she had come to, feeling dizzy, nauseous and lethargic, Obara told her that she had passed out after drinking a bottle of vodka. Five years later, after Obara’s arrest, the police found a large number of home videos of the suspect having sex with unconscious women, foreign and Japanese. Among them was Donna.
According to the prosecution, he took her to his bedroom, removed her trousers and underwear, and raped her in front of his video camera; Obara appeared in many of the videos naked, or wearing a Zorro mask.
To ensure the women’s compliance, the prosecution alleges, he pressed over their faces a rag soaked in chloroform, a poison which damages the liver. In 1992, an Australian woman named Carita Ridgway fell unconscious and died of liver failure a few days after being raped by Obara. With remarkable composure, Obara checked her into hospital, consoled her distraught parents and succeeded in convincing the doctors that her illness had been caused by hepatitis and a bad oyster.
It was in the summer of 2000 that he met Lucie Blackman, a former British Airways stewardess, who was working in a Roppongi bar called Casablanca. On July 1, the two went to the apartment in Zushi together.
For seven dismal months, nothing more was heard of Lucie. Her father, Tim, flew out repeatedly to Tokyo, accompanied by his younger daughter, Sophie. They produced missing-person posters and set up a telephone hotline. They consulted detectives and bar girls, journalists and psychics, and even engineered a meeting with a sympathetic Tony Blair while he was on a visit to Japan. MY PROFILE As a result of the publicity surrounding the case, three foreign women, including Donna, came forward to describe waking up, sore and sick, in Obara’s bed, with no memory of the night before. (Several of them, it turned out, had reported him to the Roppongi police, but had been ignored.) The police arrested Obara in October 2000 and raided his properties, where they found decades worth of accumulated clutter.
Court evidence reveals that his cars included a Ferrari, an Aston Martin, a Bentley and a Rolls-Royce. There were piles of diaries and documents, and in the refrigerator the body of Obara’s beloved pet, a German shepherd dog, accompanied by frozen dog food and roses. (He later explained that he was waiting for biotechnology to advance so that he could have the animal cloned.) They also found the rape videos, date- rape drugs and chloroform, and blonde hairs belonging to Lucie. Finally, the following February, her body was recovered from a seaside cave, 200 yards from one of Obara’s apartments, cut with a chainsaw into ten pieces.
Obara and his lawyers argued last month that Lucie was a drug user who died of an overdose, a claim dismissed as ludicrous by her father, Tim. The prosecution claims that the drugs that killed her were Rohypnol and chloroform, administered by Obara. Unlike the other girls, there is no video of Lucie and Obara and, because of the state of the body, no decisive DNA evidence. But even ignoring the mass of circumstantial evidence amassed by the prosecution, Obara’s defence team faces one inescapable fact: in criminal cases such as that of Obara, fewer than 1 per cent of defendants are acquitted.
But few battle so hard to prove their innocence. At the detention centre where he lives, documents relating to the trial stand in piles almost to the ceiling of his small cell. One of his team of ten lawyers visits him almost every day. Apart from the eight criminal charges against him, he is involved in litigation involving his companies. Last year he was declared personally bankrupt, with debts of 23.8 billion yen (£122 million).
Apart from his lawyers, only his mother, now in her eighties, is allowed to visit him; for the past few months she has been too unwell to make the journey from Osaka. He gets on fine with the guards at the detention centre, but rarely smiles or makes a joke. He seldom speaks of the past or of his family, and never about friends.
“My impression is that he is totally sane,” says one who knows him. “There’s nothing crazy about him except the way he treats women. He’s very, very clever but very selfish, totally convinced that he is right, and he never listens to the opinions of other people. But I don’t think he ever had a true friend he could rely on, and he doesn’t now. He is a very lonely person. Apart from his lawyers, there’s no one he can rely on or consult.”
In court, he follows the proceeding with concentration, scribbling notes and whispering with his lawyers. But at the two hearings last month, as he hunched in the dock, another middle-aged man sat a few feet away — Tim Blackman, whose campaign to find his daughter led directly to Obara’s arrest. He sat with his daughter, Sophie, and his partner Josephine, listening calmly while the man in the dock tried to convince the court that his daughter was a drug user.
I asked Tim Blackman what it was like to see face-to-face the man accused of killing his daughter. “I could be a bit odd,” he said. “I’m prepared to admit that. But I see somebody who is the same age as me, who has, by his actions, produced the most terrible situation for himself by doing something so heinous to somebody else’s life. And in a very strange way there’s a pathos that neutralises the more natural anger. I feel sorry for him. I do feel sorry for him.”