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The English girl who became a geisha was lured to her death in the dark world of Tokyo’s escort bars

from Lucie Blackman thought she was ordinary. Her self-judged ordinariness tormented her more than anything else. ‘I constantly hate myself,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘I’m so average . . .

‘I hate the way I look, I hate my hair, I hate my face, I hate my slanty eyes, I hate the mole on my face, I hate my teeth, I hate my chin. I hate my boobs, my fat hips, my fat stomach. I am so f****** up to my neck in debt and so badly need to do well.’

Lucie drank too much, spent too much and her self-esteem was shaky. So, yes, in all of that she was a pretty normal 21-year-old.

But even as she wrote those self-deprecating words, she was doing something very out of the ordinary with her life.

In the early summer of 2000, Lucie travelled from her home in Sevenoaks, Kent, to work in a hostess bar in Toyko.

She was a gaijin (Western) girl, whose blonde foreignness Japanese men were supposed to find alluring.

They would pay enormous sums just to sit with gaijin girls in tacky clubs, make conversation in fractured English, have their drinks poured and cigarettes lit. Nothing else was expected or demanded. It was safe, safe, safe.

And it was fun, supposedly so. But right now, three weeks into her new career, Lucie was feeling depressed. Getting work had been a breeze, just as her fellow traveller and best friend from school, Louise Phillips, had said it would be.

The two of them had done everything together. They worked in the same boring bank in London before becoming British Airways flight attendants, which was terrific to begin with, until the to-and-fro trolley-dollying, permanent jet lag and sleep snatched in some bleak crewroom stripped away their lingering illusions of glamour.

And now Lucie and Lou were fluttering their eyelashes in Casablanca, a nightclub in Roppongi, the entertainment district of Toyko.

Every night, they were expected to laugh at the (mercifully incomprehensible) smutty jokes of middle-aged men, keep the whisky and tequila flowing, and generally be as genki (lively) as possible.
A Western hostess entertains a Japanese executive in an exclusive private club, where fun-seeking gaijin are the most prized

Making conversation: A Western hostess entertains a Japanese executive in an exclusive private club, where fun-seeking gaijin are the most prized

Only Lucie wasn’t feeling genki today. The cell-like room in the hostel she shared with other gaijin girls – dancers, models, teachers, hostesses – in teeming Tokyo was spinning. Pain shot through Lucie’s head as she reached her hand out for the furry rabbit-shaped alarm clock.

Why did everything have to have cute animals on it? Everything in Tokyo was cute. But not her. Lucie didn’t feel at all cute. Her mouth was parched. She couldn’t remember how much she’d had to drink the night before, only that it was a lot.

It was already well past midday. She could hear Louise in the shower ahead of her. Tokyo had been Louise’s idea. Why was it always that way? Why did Louise always get there first? Still, Lucie told herself, if her best friend could get the hang of ‘Tokes’, so could she.

When Lucie had told her father Tim about her plans to work as a Tokyo bar hostess, she certainly didn’t say ‘Hey, Dad, I’m going out to Japan to work on the fringes of the sex industry’, he recalls. But that is precisely where she was headed, to try her hand at the less seedy end of what was sometimes quaintly called mizu shobai (the ‘water trade’) – the night-time entertainment business involving female company and alcohol.

All jobs in the water trade involved drinking and sex in some form. But Lucie and Louise had done some research: it seemed that the higher the class of the operation, the less actual sex there was.
The Roppongi district in Tokyo, where Lucie worked as a hostess in the Casablanca bar

Seedy: The Roppongi district in Tokyo, where Lucie worked as a hostess in the Casablanca bar

They knew the kind of water traders they were going to be. Or they thought they did. There were these supposedly super-exclusive nightclubs where girls just had to listen to men’s jokes, light their cigarettes and smile. The idea was to lure a rich catch into a fantasy love affair, while the bill was discreetly settled on a corporate expense account.

That was not the same as kayabajura (cabaret clubs), where kyabajos (club girls) were expected to befriend whoever walked in and get their wallets opened pretty quick.

Slightly below that were the ‘snack girls’ who worked the more humble bars, the sunakku. You could find these places dotted all over Japanese cities. Below that, well, there was a lot below that.

The Japanese appetite for paid-for sex has long intrigued outsiders. Historically, resorting to prostitutes was nothing special to Japanese men, not even ordinary men with families. Wives did not ask, or seemed not to care. Much more shaming for a heterosexual man than seeking sex outside marriage was being over the age of 30 and still single.

A single man might be disbarred from promotion or even renting a flat, on the grounds he would be incapable of keeping it in any kind of order. So being married was good. Having sex on the side was not all bad. Indeed, erotic and sexual themes had been a traditional part of Japanese culture for centuries, with none of the shame or religious concepts of sin associated with sex in the West.

There was another historical phenomenon, the geisha – the exquisitely mannered, doll-like women to whom modern-day hostesses are sometimes compared. Geisha were traditionally trained to entertain their customer by reciting verse, playing musical instruments or engaging in light conversation. They may have flirted, but they did not have paid sex with clients – and in that sense, the hostess/geisha comparison was accurate.

The literature Lucie read before leaving home told her she would need ‘conversational skills’ and a ‘bubbly personality’. Well, she had both of those; she’d shown that working the aisles with boring old BA.

The received wisdom was that Japanese men liked to be treated as pampered little boys. As a former flight attendant, Lucie was an expert. She was made for hostessing. Her new job, she told her sister Sophie, would be ‘like being an air hostess without the altitude’.
Lucie Blackman (left) with her younger sister Sophie

‘Bright’: Lucie Blackman (left) with her younger sister Sophie

Lucie Blackman was bright, intelligent and attractive. At 18, she had left her fee-paying girls’ school with three A-levels, but going to university had not been on her agenda. She wanted to get out into the world as soon as she could. Most of all, she wanted financial independence.

Her early childhood had been happy enough. Her father Tim was a self-employed builder turned property developer, and her mother Jane had trained as a reflexologist. Lucie was the eldest, followed by Sophie, two years younger, then their brother Rupert, five years Lucie’s junior.

The family holidayed in Spain and on the Isle of Wight, where Tim, a keen member of the classic and vintage yacht club, kept a beautiful 33ft Bermudian sloop, all teak and gleaming brass, called the Bettine. It was, in every sense, a comfortable Home Counties upbringing.

But as Lucie reached adolescence, home became a war zone. Tim had several affairs, finally walking out when Lucie was 17. Lucie (with Sophie and Rupert) stayed with her mother in Sevenoaks and hardly saw her father for the next two-and-a-half years.

She hated the mess her parents had made. When they communicated at all, it was to row about money.

Her mother was having to scrimp and save, and that was certainly not Lucie’s style. She’d always been as hardworking-and as self-sufficient as she could be, augmenting her pocket money with babysitting and a job in Pizza Hut. Now she had the chance to get away from the tensions at home, enjoy herself and make lots of money at the same time.
Lucie with her mother Jane, not long before she flew to Tokyo to work as a hostess and see the world

Last pictures: Lucie with her mother Jane, not long before she flew to Tokyo to work as a hostess and see the world

Lucie and Louise’s idea of going to Tokyo came from Louise’s older sister Emma, who had just returned after working as a ‘hostess’ in the city. It was safe and fun, she told them.

Some girls signed up with recruiting agencies in London, but there was no need for that. They just had to go to Narita airport and pick up Tokyo Classified magazine. There would be loads of job ads – they could take their pick.

You were supposed to work in a place for three months minimum, but some clubs would hire for shorter periods or even offer a couple of nights’ trial, she told them. It would be easy – a big laugh.

For Lucie, telling her parents the whole truth was obviously out of the question. So she told her father that she would be working in a bar and staying in a flat owned by her friend Louise’s ‘aunt’ – who, conveniently enough, was Japanese and lived in the capital.
Tim Blackman

‘I’ll be fine’: Lucie told her father Tim Blackman (above) that she would be working in a bar and staying in her friend’s aunt’s flat

They’d get cheap tickets courtesy of her old employers, BA, and be in and out of Japan on a 90-day tourist visa. She’d be home by the beginning of August. Or maybe she’d go and see more of Asia, get to Thailand and end up in Australia.

She told Sophie that she would be back before anyone knew she’d even been away, and after that she was going to train as a primary school teacher. But whatever happened, she would earn enough in Japan to pay off her credit card debts and then some. It was all going to be fantastic.

On May 3, 2000, Lucie slept fitfully in her bedroom at home in Sevenoaks. She had already stripped the room as if she wanted the break to be absolute this time. Posters were taken off the walls, books and cuddly toys packed away. Every record of her childhood and teenage years she’d ever kept had been thrown out or put in the loft.

Her mother put a card with guardian angels on it in her handbag and scattered New Age healing crystals in her luggage to be on the safe side. Lucie shrugged. That was how Mum was.

Still Jane fretted. ‘Are you sure you’re going to be all right? Are you sure it’s safe?’ And the more she fussed, the more determined Lucie was to go.

The gaijin girls who poured into Narita airport daily fell into two categories: those who were there for fun, and those who needed the money.

The funseekers like Lucie Blackman came from privileged backgrounds in America or Europe, or were from Israel, Canada or Australia. Many viewed the work as a means of topping up their cash with a little bar work while on the global circuit.

It was the old ‘working my way round the world, with a bit of waitressing on the side’ routine, updated for glossier times. The more mercenary, especially those from Russia, were in the business to pile cash for taking home. To those they entertained, however, the fun-seeking gaijin were the most prized. The men lapped up their wide-eyed attentiveness and breathy giggles; they just loved being with them.

They could have been conversing in their native tongue with beautiful Japanese girls who were just as eager to please, but instead they chose to listen to the dirty jokes of some blonde from Leeds.

Why? All sorts of psychosexual and cultural reasons had been offered over the years for what is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. These gaijin-obsessed men were, for the most part, in their 40s and 50s. To them, the girls were like something from imported American TV shows of the Sixties – the perfect girlfriend or hi-honey-I’m-home wife who is always up for a drink or a flirt, who never scolds or criticises.

Professor Anne Allison, a Chicago academic and anthropologist, worked as a Tokyo hostess in the 1980s and subsequently wrote a study on the sexualised atmosphere of Japan’s nightclub scene.

She explains: ‘Japanese sex, like Japanese society, is ordered and orderly. Japanese men like to know exactly what is expected of them and how they are meant to behave before entering any situation. And in the hostess clubs, they know that the only thing on offer is titillation.

‘You tell him you wish he was your lover. He tells you he would like to take you home. You say that would be lovely, but my sister is in town and I have to show her the sights. It is the answer he was expecting; he might well have been frightened at any other.

‘Japanese men certainly fantasise about sleeping with Western women, but the reality of having one as a wife or mistress frightens them. We might intrigue them, and there is certainly kudos in having a Western woman on your arm, but Western women are known to have opinions, to be neither obedient nor subservient.

‘The men are much happier to keep their fantasies in the safe world of the hostess bars, where they can pretend it is true for an evening.’
Hostesses dance with their Japanese clients at Casanove in Tokyo, where gaijin-obsessed men fantasise about sleeping with Western women

Sexualised atmosphere: Hostesses dance with their Japanese clients at Casanove in Tokyo, where gaijin-obsessed men fantasise about sleeping with Western women

In the men’s eyes, Filipina or Thai girls worked the water trade for money. And why else would a Japanese girl do it except that she needed the cash? (In fact, Japanese hostesses were paid marginally more than their American or British counterparts.)

But in their illusory world, the freckle-faced fantasies from Sevenoaks or Seattle chose to do it. They were nice girls from good families, so they must really like them.

And the illusion had to be protected. Sometimes a party of men would turn up with foreign business partners in tow to celebrate a deal. But it never seemed to work. The play acting was too obvious – ludicrous even – especially if the customer came from somewhere near home.

One girl from Yorkshire, who had gone out to Japan as a teacher but found the water-trade money too tempting, recalled how Western businessmen were sometimes brought into the club where she worked.

‘But they’d always be uncomfortable,’ she said, ‘however drunk they got – especially about white women having to play subservient to the Japanese, getting them towels, lighting every cigarette, doing the ultra-deferential bit.

‘They’d look at the floor, and not talk to you out of embarrassment.’

In fact, the really upmarket clubs discreetly barred ‘Western’ customers altogether.

The Japanese male psyche was alien and complex, but Lucie had done her homework. She understood the conflict between tatemae, the public face of an individual, and honne, the real self of private thoughts and feelings that her hosts were so anxious to keep hidden.

So were the smart executives and ageing playboys who routinely bought the company of blonde gaijin girls in hostess bars for a little ego-boosting flattery ever tempted to seek something extra? Of course they were.

Lucie phoned her mother once to tell her that a customer had offered her ‘a fantastic sum of money to sleep with him’. She had laughed off the proposal, reminding her mother that her job was to pour drinks, light cigarettes and ‘discuss boring subjects like volcanoes’.

Lucie never considered herself to be a prostitute. And she wasn’t. But her tragedy was that it didn’t matter what she thought she was. It was what one customer in particular judged her to be – with truly terrifying consequences.


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