The Tragic Tale of a Tokyo Hostess

Feb. 17, 2006 — -- Lucie Blackman's story begins as an adventure -- one that many young women would find glamorous and exciting.

A beautiful 21-year-old woman from England, Blackman traveled to Tokyo in May 2000 and found what she thought would be a fun job at the center of the city's night life. Three months later, Blackman's story ended tragically, in a grisly crime that exposed the dark underside of the exclusive clubs in Tokyo's Roppongi district.

Many of Japan's nightspots are in the business of triggering fantasies and stirring desires. Nestled among those bawdy temptations are more reserved and respectable places called hostess clubs. These clubs deal not in overt sex but in illusions of intimacy.

At some clubs, an evening's agenda may include a little karaoke and some friendly dancing. And that, we're told, is the end of it. Hostess clubs are a normal part of sophisticated social life in Japan. In Tokyo alone, there are about 11,000 of them.

"Japanese people work a lot. And at the end of the day, you know, they'd like to have a drink. They'd like to, you know, have a chat with some ladies. … So they just pay to always have their drink looked after and always have their cigarette lit and, you know, a lovely lady by their side to talk to," explained Petrea, a former hostess at Club Outline.

A smart, lively blonde, Blackman found work as a hostess in one of these clubs.

A club provides a certain amount of security and protection to their hostesses through a female manager known as a "Mama-san," who watches over the hostesses like a taskmaster and a den mother.

"If we have any problems, it all goes through Mama, all of it. She's here every night. She is -- I don't know, she's like the manager, but she's Mama. She's like the owner, but she's Mama," Petrea said.

'It Could Have Been Any of Us'

The young hostesses are made to feel protected from any inappropriate behavior they may encounter among clients. But in July 2000, that sense of security was shattered when Blackman disappeared from her job at Casablanca.

"It's so bizarre. The scary thing is that it could have been any of us," said Michelle Joyce, a former hostess.

Dai Davies, a private investigator and former Scotland Yard official, was hired by Blackman's family to find out what had happened to her. When Davies took a closer look at hostess clubs and the women who worked in them, he discovered a dark underside to Tokyo's glitz and neon that many young people find so attractive.

"There's a huge naivete. They're 21 years of age. They arrive here because it's glamorous. They think they're going to be, I don't know, bar stewardesses, bar maids. And I think very quickly they get sucked into an environment where it's high life. It's fun. You get smart men chatting you up. You get alcohol given to you," he said.

Joyce emphasized, however, that there was a strict protocol for the hostesses.

"Although we're supposed to appear available for these men, we would actually get fired if we slept with one of them. It's weird. It's kind of this fuzzy line between reality and fiction, and there's alcohol flowing. And it's just a very surreal environment," she said.

Sexual liaisons with customers are forbidden because, despite the come-ons, the clubs don't make money selling sex. They make money selling alcohol. The hostesses are just the hook.

"The whole structure's designed to get men in there, to take their money off them, to sell them as much alcohol, to get them to return. I've heard of people spending 2,000, 3,000 pounds a night. You pay a large sum of money just for the initial entry, where you are then presented with girls who actually sit there and -- and ply the men with drink. They chat, they smile, and they talk. They titillate their fancies, as it were," Davies said.

While the flirtation is supposed to be innocent, some say hostess jobs can take a toll.

"There's something that eats away at you. I don't know quite what it is. It's easy. You know, you talk, sort of like conversation prostitution. You know? Something about that bothers me," Petrea said.

A False Sense of Security?

Hostessing looks like an easy and lucrative job. Some hostesses make as much as $5,000 a month. Ads say the job requires conversational skills, and that seemed perfect for Blackman and her friend Louise Phillips, both former British Airways flight attendants.

For Blackman, hostessing provided a foreign adventure with her feet on the ground. But after awhile on the job, she had doubts and expressed them in e-mails to a friend in England.

"Reading them, you'd get really a bit concerned because she says you have to really kind of suck up to them. Be really, like, caring and false, I suppose, about these guys that you meet just to make your money," Blackman's friend Samantha said.

Blackman downplayed the job's worrisome aspects to her parents, Tim and Jane. They are divorced, and they had different opinions about her working in Japan.

"It just seemed to me, for a 21-year-old, a fairly reasonable thing to go to any foreign country. And you have to realize that being the oldest child, since the breakup of my marriage to her mother, I think she's had a really difficult time. This trip had been built up in her mind as a way of establishing her own way and her own identity," her father said.

Her mother wasn't so sure, though. "It's just such a long way away from home. It's such a long way. I'm not psychic or anything, but I have motherly instincts, and I just had this really bad feeling about her going to Japan," Jane said.

Sadly, her instincts were right.

Japan is known to have a crime rate well below industrialized countries in the West, and there is a sense in Japan of order and safety absent in more freewheeling cultures.

But that may create a false sense of security for young women learning their way around the Roppongi district.

"A lot of women are from countries where the crime rate is a lot higher. And we're told that Japan is so safe, and there is a real feeling of security," Joyce said.

Melissa Williams, who worked with Blackman, said many young women had great experiences in Japan.

"You don't really know what Japan is like until you go out there," Williams said. "And if you can go out with the right head on your shoulders, and you know you can cope with it all, then you're going to have a fantastic time. And you are going to make money, and you're going to enjoy it."

And at first, Lucie Blackman was doing just that. Her co-workers liked her immediately.

"She was very bubbly. And she was always smiling and joking. She had a very good sense of humor. She knew very witty one-liners. And she was … just a happy-go-lucky girl," Williams said.

On a July afternoon, Blackman left her apartment wearing a simple black dress and black sandals. She told Louise, her roommate, that she was going to meet a man who had promised to buy her a cell phone. Louise assumed he was a customer from the club. About 7 p.m., Blackman telephoned to say she'd be back in about an hour. That was the last time Phillips ever heard from her friend.

Blackman disappeared in one of the most crowded cities in the world. After a panicked weekend, her roommate made a difficult phone call to Blackman's mother in England.

"I had just parceled up some sweets for her and a handbag and some shoes. And I was just literally going out the door to the post office, and the phone rang, and it was Louise," said Jane Blackman. "And she was sort of crying and saying, 'Lucie's gone missing, and she hasn't come back. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.' And then I just felt my knees sort of buckle. And I just said, 'Louise, I'm going to have to go because I'm going to be sick.' And I was physically, physically sick."

Family Pushes Investigation Forward

Jane called her younger daughter, Sophie, to tell her the news. Sophie then told her father.

Tokyo seemed a vast and mysterious place thousands of miles from home. And to a family unfamiliar with the culture, the response from the Japanese police seemed strangely secretive and maddeningly slow.

"To be fair to them, 21-year-old girl goes missing for two nights. Big deal. … But the fact is, it's Lucie. … There's just no way she would have disappeared for two days and not contacted anyone," Sophie said.

The days grew into weeks. Blackman's sister and father went to Tokyo to raise as much fuss as possible. They courted the press and badgered people in high places. They put posters up all over the city.

Their efforts paid off. They even generated enough publicity to nudge British Prime Minister Tony Blair to get involved.

The family also had its investigator, Davies, on the case, and he was learning a great deal about Blackman and the Casablanca Club.

Security procedures at the club, which has since gone out of business, were notably lax compared with other clubs, Davies said. And its owners refused to cooperate with the Blackmans or the investigator.

But a hostess who worked at Casablanca gave Davies the description of a man seen at the club just days before Lucie had disappeared.

Other witnesses placed Lucie at the seaside, about 30 miles outside Tokyo, with a man who fit the same basic description. Queries there, however, brought no immediate answers. But, in fact, the trail was getting much warmer than anyone realized at the time.

Investigators would soon discover that Lucie Blackman was not the first young, blond and attractive woman to disappear.

A 27-year-old, blond ,Canadian woman named Tiffany Fordham had also worked as a hostess in the Roppongi and also had disappeared.

Unavailability May Make Hostesses More Enticing to Clients

While hostesses like Blackman and Fordham play by strict rules, they play in an environment where all sorts of sexual fantasies are easily available. It's the unavailability of the hostesses that can make the game exciting for some clients.

"My roommate was offered, what was it, $100,000 for first-time sex, and then $10,000 for each encounter after that. One of the things that I thought about a lot is, you know, 'Does everybody have a price? Do I have a price?'" former hostess Michelle Joyce said.

The mistake Blackman most likely made on the afternoon she disappeared was to accept a date and a ride with a club customer. From the time she disappeared, her father had his own profile of a likely suspect.

"Lucie will have had a customer in the club who she felt was a real guy and a proper bloke. He would have been older than her. He would have been well-dressed, obviously wealthy, reasonably good-looking, and would have a really smart car and Armani clothes," Tim Blackman said. "And if he said to her, 'Look, Lucie, you know, it's a bit dull in this club. Why don't you come out with me on Saturday or something?' And then she would have given that very serious consideration."

It turns out the hostess clubs encourage such dates with customers called "dohans." Some clubs even require them. Where Lucie worked, there was a quota.

Blackman generated her share of dohans. They are specifically not intimate encounters but lavish dinner dates that always end by bringing the customer back to the club, generating more business.

In a nighttime world where teasing and sexual banter are part of the atmosphere, there are bound to be some customers driven to take things too far.

There were dozens of disturbing theories surfacing about Blackman's disappearance, including rumors that a devious underground group might have been holding her as a sex slave.

A Break in the Case

The unexpected break in the case came not in Tokyo's seedy netherworld, but in a plush and quiet area by the sea. While investigating a different case, Japanese police arrested a real estate millionaire named Joji Obara. He owns apartments and offices in downtown Tokyo and a seaside condominium.

"He was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a Western woman. There was no direct connection then to the Blackman case, and this is quite a common Japanese police tactic. You have the big crime in your mind. You don't have enough evidence. So you arrest somebody for a smaller crime that allows you to get them into the cell," said Jonathan Watts, a reporter for Britain's Guardian newspaper.

Obara is a naturalized Japanese citizen of Korean descent. He studied law and politics at one of Japan's most prestigious universities, and managed his family's real estate fortune. He developed a taste for the bachelor's high life, expensive boats, new Ferraris and, apparently, Western women. He was a regular on the hostess club scene, where he used several different names.

The initial arrest of Obara was only the beginning. Since then, he has been charged in five additional rape cases. As both Western and Japanese women came forward, a pattern emerged.

Obara would allegedly slip a drug into the women's drinks and then sexually assault them while they were unconscious.

"He [videotaped] at least 50 of these occasions. The women recall waking up the next day and being told by Joji Obara, 'You drank much too much last night. I put you to bed. I hope you don't mind. Here's some money 'cause you've missed a whole day's work,'" Watts said.

Obara said the sex with his escorts was always consensual. But after police searched his homes and dug up his gardens, there were leaks about evidence that linked him to Blackman. Sources say telephone records show Blackman made a call from one of his mobile phones.

Police also found blond hairs and DNA evidence that pointed to Blackman.

Neither Obara nor his attorney would talk to "20/20" directly. But in a statement released to the Japanese press, the attorney said Obara was a victim of "trumped-up charges resulting from international hysteria over the disappearance of Lucie Blackman."

Eight months after Blackman disappeared, resolution came in the most final and brutal way imaginable. Her nude and dismembered body was found partially encased in cement in a cave along the Japanese coastline, about 270 yards from Obara's seaside condominium.

Police leaks to the media theorized that Blackman had died from an overdose of drugs administered by Obara and that he had panicked and hastily disposed of the body.

It's too traumatic for Blackman's mom to try to piece together her daughter's final moments.

"The thought that somebody as evil as that being the last person that was with my daughter, you know, it just does my head in, and I can't bear it. And that's what I have to think that she just went to sleep like Sleeping Beauty," Jane Blackman said.

Obara's trial continues and may last months longer. He denies the charges against him.

As a mourning father, Tim Blackman seems to have the stamina to see the process through to its end, wherever it leads. "It's a really long drawn-out way of proceeding. … But it's really, really important to us that Lucie's death is dealt with, and that justice is done."