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Reviewed by:
  • Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan
  • Valerie L. Durham
Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan. By William Johnston. Columbia University Press, 2005. 245 pages. Hardcover $31.00/£19.50

For most non-Japanese, Abe Sada is known, if at all, as the heroine of Ōshima Nagisa's controversial film Ai no korīda (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976). Ōshima's film depicts one of Japan's most notorious crimes, the 1936 murder-mutilation of restaurant-owner Ishida Kichizō at the hands of Abe Sada, Ishida's mistress and a waitress at his restaurant. For over three weeks, the two had enjoyed a debauch of almost continual sex that came to an end only when Abe strangled the sleeping Ishida to death with her undersash. After hacking off Ishida's penis and scrotum, she carved her name on his arm and used his blood to write "Sada, Kichi together forever" on the sheet next to his body. When the police caught up with her two days later, she was still carrying her grisly souvenir of the murder inside her kimono.

Abe's crime immediately became a cause célèbre. The murder occurred only three months after the abortive coup d'état known as the February 26th Incident, war with China loomed, and the Japanese populace was in need of diversion. The gruesome and bizarre nature of the crime would have been enough to arouse curiosity, but Abe's unwavering insistence that she had murdered and mutilated Ishida out of pure love helped fire public interest in the woman Abe Sada, a fascination that continues unabated today.

In Japan, ongoing interest in Abe Sada has inspired an endless parade of books (both fiction and nonfiction), magazine articles, poetry, dramatic works, and movies. Until the publication of this valuable study by William Johnston, however, her story and the considerable body of source materials related to her life and crime were largely [End Page 260] inaccessible to those unable to read Japanese. Johnston's pioneering work would be significant for this reason alone, but the meticulous and wide-ranging research that serves as the backbone for this book makes it a noteworthy contribution, not only to Japanese studies, but to a wide variety of scholarly disciplines. Despite the large body of works in Japanese devoted to Abe, there remains a prejudice in Japan against seeing her as a fit subject for serious research. Johnston's book, however, ably demonstrates how her story can serve as a locus for a variety of scholarly inquiries, including gender studies, women's history, sexology, criminology, legal history, public health, media studies, and literature. As the first researcher to write a serious treatise in English on this fascinating but complex topic, Johnston faced the dilemma of which sources to use out of the abundance of materials available and what theoretical lens to adopt. His choice was to focus directly on Abe and the environment that shaped her and to narrate her story using primary sources as much as possible. Although Johnston's approach incorporates elements of modern critical theory, and he also points the reader to scholars who might provide alternative critical apparatuses with which to analyze Abe, ultimately he chooses to use her own voice as the basic foundation on which to build his study.

The book consists of a number of short chapters, most of which deal with the different phases of Abe's dramatic life. Abe, born into a plebeian but by no means poor Tokyo family, was alternately spoiled and neglected by her parents. At the age of fifteen, she was raped by an acquaintance, an event she claimed was the turning point in her life; as "damaged goods," she no longer felt qualified for marriage. After a period of juvenile delinquency, she was sold into geishahood, and then descended into the world of licensed prostitution. Finally managing to free herself from the brothels, she graduated to the varied careers of waitress, café hostess, "high class prostitute," and mistress to numerous men. It was during this period that she came to find intense pleasure in sex.

In 1936...


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