Geisha, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan: book cover

Book Info:
Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan
By William Johnston
Columbia University Press; ISBN: 0-231-13052-X; 2005 pp. 245

Abe as Fact and Fiction
The Abe Sada Story
William Johnston
Abe as Icon
Ending the World

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The Cruelest Cut
By: Yuki Allyson Honjo

On May 18, 1936, Sada Abe strangled her lover Kichizo Ishida with an obi cord. She removed his genitals with a knife, daubed in blood “Sada and Kitchi together” on the sheets, and carved her name on his arm with a knife. She neatly wrapped Ishida’s genitals in a magazine cover and washed her hands. Carrying the souvenir of her lover, Abe stepped out of the inn and into Japan’s collective popular imagination.

When her crime was discovered the next day, it was an instant sensation. With a “sexually and criminally dangerous woman on the loose,” the nation was gripped with “Abe Sada panic”: newspapers printed extra editions and a mad rush of curiosity seekers created a large traffic jam in Ginza. She evaded the police for days and was eventually caught in an inn in Shinagawa, where she had planned to commit suicide. In a widely published photo (Click here for original photo) taken shortly after her arrest, her kimono is slightly disheveled; she has an odd smile on her face. The policemen are smiling as well, and all look rather pleased with themselves.

Abe confessed freely to the crime and was clearly a danger to no one but herself. They asked her why she killed Ishida. “Because I loved him,” she answered. Men could legally control women in any number of ways. Killing him, she said, was the only way she could really and truly “monopolize” and control her man.

As William Johnston, the author of Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan points out, Abe’s story still remains current, almost seventy years after the event. While similar crimes have been committed, even in the jaded post Lorena Bobbitt world, Sada Abe remains a well discussed subject of numerous books, essays and multiple films. For example, Nagisa Oshima’s film (1976) In the Realm of the Senses was based on Abe Sada and her relationship with Ishida, as was Noburu Tanaka’s Abe Sada Story (1975) and Nobuhiro Obayashi’s Sada (1998). She became an icon, someone to be feared, and an exotic object of lurid and prurient male fantasy.

This book focuses on the historical Sada Abe. Johnston uses a wide array of primary and secondary sources in Japanese and English to create a multi-dimensional and sympathetic portrait of Sada Abe. In the back of the book, he includes a translation of the published transcripts of Sada’s police interrogations. While Abe’s responses are fascinating, so are the police questions. The police ask, as if this were the normal course of action, “If you loved Ishida so much, why didn’t you bring up the idea of a double suicide?” Johnston’s book argues that while Sada Abe was a unique individual, the difficult circumstances around her life were generally unremarkable for the day.

The youngest daughter of a tatatmi mat maker, she came from middle class, if not affluent, family. Spoiled by her mother, she was allowed to do largely as she pleased as a child. In her teens, she was a victim of an acquaintance rape. While her family defended her (contrary to some of the fictional and semi-fictional accounts of her life) and tried to mollify her with presents, Abe became a surly and uncontrollable teenager. With her parent’s money, she was able to fund her aimless lifestyle. Her father eventually sold her to a geisha house: there is some debate on whether it was Abe’s wish (geisha were glamorous stars of the day) or whether it was punishment for Abe’s sexual promiscuity, which was also not unusual.

Abe soon found that life as a geisha was not all that she imagined. True geisha were accomplished women: they trained for years in the arts, many since they were children. It became evident to Abe that, with her lack of discipline and training, she was unlikely to become a star in the geisha world. As a low ranking geisha, her services were mostly sexual and she spent five years plying her trade. After a bout of syphilis and thus consequently facing regular examinations, she chose to become a licensed prostitute.

After a few years in the trade, she tired of it and its conditions. She attempted to leave the business. However, because of her contract which indentured her to over two thousand yen in services (one thousand yen was sufficient to buy a house at the time), she took an assumed name to evade her creditors. With no real skills to her name, she first took a job as a waitress, became a mistress to various men, then a private prostitute, and then again tried to “go straight” working as a maid in a restaurant named Yoshidaya. The owner was Kichizo Ishida, whom she would eventually murder after a passionate affair.

Johnston’s analysis is particularly strong in setting the sometimes astonishing events of Abe’s life in historical context. As a public health expert, Johnston’s discussion of the sexual mores of the 1930s Japan give us greater understanding of the period and of Abe herself. In the 1930s, sexual values and the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior were in a period of flux and differed across class boundaries. On the one hand, given the importance of family reputation, virginity was prized among the upper classes to ensure proper succession. Among commoners, women had far more sexual freedoms and sexual experience was expected for women and men alike.

“Modernity,” with import of western Victorian norms, contributed to the “transformation of Japanese values governing sexuality.” In Sada Abe’s day, these dual definitions of acceptable behavior were in conflict. For example, Sada Abe’s sister Teruko had multiple lovers: as punishment, her father sold her into a brothel. Johnston tells us that this was not an uncommon course of action. However, her father bought her back. Teruko later married, and “her sexual history was no obstacle to marriage for somebody of her natal class.”

One of the most extraordinary passages of the book concerns Keijiro Hosoya, the senior judge in the case. He wrote candidly on the case and admitted to frequenting “cafés” where paid “dates” with women were arranged. When reviewing the case Hosoya found himself excited by the candid sexual details.

Contemporary sensibilities supported taboos on sexual intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period; Hosoya did not want the case to arouse the other judges sexually if they might then discover that their wives were having their periods, since they would be without the proper means of relieving their excitement, Consequently, he determined when their wives were having their periods by asking them about who had bathed the children of if their wife had taken a bath, since bathing also was taboo during a woman’s period. This way he established a time when all three wives would not be menstruating, and he set the trial for that time. (Johnston pp. 135-36)

Hosoya ran a tight ship: he tolerated no laughter, applause, or any public display of emotion. Discussion of crime would be a violation of the 59th article of the Meiji Constitution on public morality. He required witnesses to say “Ishida’s extremity” to get around this issue. Clearly navigating this terrain of sexual politics was challenge for the judge.

One weakness of the book is that Johnston spends too much time trying to understand Abe’s motivations and how the circumstances of her life led to her crime:

One particularly revealing thread is her difficulty accepting social boundaries. She remained forever on the margins of society. From adolescence, she lived outside the boundaries of “normal” women, but for her the “abnormal” became the ordinary. Eventually she lost her bearings so completely that murder and mutilation, which to her made a kind of logical sense, became acceptable. (Johnston p. 14)

At the end of the day, we will never really know what drove Abe to strangle her lover and how she justified these actions in her head. Johnston argues that heightened love and passion led to her moment of madness. Indeed, this is an interesting assertion, but it does not lead anywhere. Hundreds of young women had similar stories, but they did not strangle their lovers. Johnston tries too hard to make a connection between the circumstances and the crime.

Abe did not get the death sentence as she desired: instead, she was sentenced to six years in prison. After serving her time, she tried to return to a quiet life, but the persistence of her celebrity drove her out of hiding. Ishida’s penis and testicles were moved to the Tokyo University Medical School’s pathology museum, but they disappeared. In the same vein, Abe’s fate remains a mystery. She too disappeared after 1970, perhaps finally getting the peace and anonymity she craved.

"At the end of the day, we will never really know what drove Abe to strangle her lover and how she justified these actions in her head. Johnston argues that heightened love and passion led to her moment of madness. Indeed, this is an interesting assertion, but it does not lead anywhere."

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