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'Robbed of justice': The murder of Lucie Blackman 

Photo of Lucie Blackman by candlelight
Image: Independent / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: A photograph of Lucie Blackman in the front of St Nicolas Church in Chislehurst, Bromley, on the 29th March 2001.

What happened to Lucie Blackman?

When Kent woman Lucie Blackman went missing in Japan in 2000, it was the start of a mystery that made international headlines and draw attention to the terrible crimes of one of the world’s worst sex criminals.

It was in May 2000 that Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old from Sevenoaks, arrived in Tokyo for what should have been a three-month adventure in one of the world’s most exciting cities. Lucie had previously worked as a flight attendant for British Airways, but – fed up with the arduous working hours, jet lag and mounting debt – she’d decided to find work as a club hostess in Tokyo’s glitzy Roppongi district.

Many clubs in the area catered to Japanese businessmen who were prepared to spend good money to while away the evening hours in the company of attractive, Western women. Lucie quickly found work at one of these venues, a small nook called the Casablanca, which was little more than a glorified living room.

Here, Lucie and her fellow hostesses sat on leather sofas with well-paying male clients who enjoyed the chance to flirt and splash the cash on scotch and champagne. There were strict rules in place to keep things ‘clean’ – the women dressed relatively modestly, kissing was frowned upon, and conversation tended to be bland, with the men typically rambling on about sport or work.

Providing platonic companionship seemed the perfect way to pay off her debts, with Lucie telling her sister back in England that it was ‘like being an air hostess without the altitude’, and that she was making around £1,500 a week ‘just to pretend I’m listening to them'.

The disappearance

While the work paid well, it was also exhausting. The Casablanca functioned like a high-pressure sales company, with the women competing to cultivate more and more clients for the club. Running tallies were displayed in the dressing room, which kept the pressure on. What’s more, the women were also expected to go on a minimum number of paid dates, called 'dohans', per month.

Lucie’s diary entries revealed that her self-esteem was impacted by working in the hostess world, especially when she saw other women racking up more dates than her. Feeling increasingly worried about the job, she was happy to be invited on a date by a well-dressed, wealthy-seeming man who spoke good English.

On 1st July 2000, she departed for this paid date, telling her friend and fellow club hostess, Louise Phillips, that she’d be back home in time for a night out together. But she didn’t return as promised, and Louise became increasingly worried, calling colleagues at the Casablanca in a vain attempt to locate her.

During this frantic period, Louise received a phone call from a mystery man who told her that he was calling on Lucie’s behalf. He claimed that Lucie had joined a ‘newly rising religion’, that she was happy, and that Louise would never see her friend again.

The terrible truth

Louise notified the police as well as the Blackman family back in the UK. The story snowballed into a major media event, with Lucie’s father giving a press conference in Tokyo, utterly rejecting any suggestions she had joined a cult or was fleeing debt.

In the days that followed, he met with UK foreign secretary Robin Cook, who happened to be in Japan at that time, and even prime minister Tony Blair when he flew in for the G8 summit.

More than 150 detectives were on the case by September, and they had begun receiving calls from other Western women who’d been working as hostesses in the Roppongi district. They all reported being lured out to a luxurious seafront apartment by a well-heeled businessman, where they’d blacked out after drinking wine and then woken up feeling groggy and sick.

Following up on these leads led police to the apartment of Joji Obara, a 48-year-old businessman who’d once made millions in the property world. Although he’d lost his fortune during an economic downturn, he was still living a playboy lifestyle and was obsessed with bedding as many women as possible.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Searching his apartment, detectives found a stash of chloroform and GHB, the date rape drug. They also found diaries chronicling Obara’s repeated rapes of women he’d rendered unconscious, and hundreds of videotapes showing the assaults themselves.

None of the tapes featured Lucie and all hopes of finding her alive were crushed in February 2001, when police found her body parts buried in a cave near Obara’s residence. She had been cut up with a chainsaw.

The fight for justice

The trial of Obara, who was described by one prosecutor as the ‘beast with a human face’, dragged on for years. It culminated in April 2007, but not in the way many had hoped. Although Obara was found guilty of several rapes, and of the manslaughter of an Australian woman who’d died from chloroform poisoning, a lack of tangible evidence meant he was acquitted of Lucie’s rape and murder.

Lucie’s father told the media he had been ‘robbed of justice’, while her mother said that her ‘worst fears’ had come true. But this wasn’t the end of the story. Prosecutors wasted no time in appealing the verdict, and the following year – after much tension and uncertainty – a court convicted Obara of abducting and mutilating Lucie Blackman.

It was not a total reversal of the original verdict, since he still evaded conviction for murder. But it was as close as could be to an official confirmation of Obara’s guilt, providing some degree of closure for those who loved Lucie Blackman, eight years after her tragic death.