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Reviewed by:
  • Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan
  • Christine Marran (bio)
Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan. By William Johnston. Columbia University Press, New York, 2004. viii, 243 pages. $29.50.

William Johnston has contributed the first English-language book to the mammoth corpus of texts about Japanese murderess Abe Sada. Abe was arrested on May 19, 1936, in Tokyo for killing her lover Ishida Kichizōby strangulation (after he threatened to return home to his wife) and quickly became a media sensation. In the postwar period, Abe was revived as a subject [End Page 482] of popular and critical interest. In the first few years following the war, well-known author Sakaguchi Ango interviewed her and Oda Sakunosuke made her the heroine of at least two short stories. Popular writer Kimura Ichirō devoted an entire novel to the incident, which led Abe to emerge from anonymity to take him to court for libel and to write her own version of the incident. From the 1960s to the 1990s, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers, feminist authors, and historians have all weighed in on the story of this peculiarly popular mistress of sex and death. Even six decades after the incident, an eponymous film was released, and Watanabe Jun'ichi's popular novel about a love suicide featured the relationship of Ishida and Abe as an allegorical touchstone for the lead couple in the novel.

With so many texts on the subject of Abe, it could be argued that no domestic crime has caused a like sensation in twentieth-century Japan among such a range of readers and writers. Undoubtedly the most widely read print version of Abe's story is her testimony, which circulated underground after the incident and eventually surfaced to be published in a variety of venues from erotic magazines to historical studies. While Johnston has clearly consulted a large number of these Japanese sources, he has chosen to focus on the contemporary newspaper articles, medical reports, and Abe's testimony in the police interrogation and murder trial for his arguments in Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star. He includes, as well, a careful translation of Abe's testimony as "Notes from the Police Interrogation of Abe Sada," which provocatively captures the straightforward and unapologetic tone of Abe's original testimony.

In line with Abe's own claims made in testimony and her later Abe Sada shuki (Memoirs of Abe Sada, 1948), Johnston first introduces the incident as the tragic result of an intense love relationship. Johnston, for the most part, accepts Abe's framing of the murder, which she had insisted was out of love for Ishida and not the result of sexual perversity as many in the medical community and media argued. His preface states:

this is, above all, an enduring story about love and one woman's quest to find and hold on to it.. . . What I hope readers might discover in [the story at the center of this book] is a basic humanity that helps them reflect on both their own and that of the people around them. To retell this story is to reinvent it, and in the process to examine something as mysterious as love itself: our ability, as humans, to communicate with other humans.

(pp. vii–viii)

This interpretation informs his picture of Abe as a compelling figure of resistance during a socially oppressive time, especially for women who might openly express their sexual desire. From here, Johnston treats her story as a touchstone for making larger claims about the plight of women and the social constraints on the expression of female sexuality in modern Japan. The understanding of the book, while not explicitly stated, is that a disorderly [End Page 483] woman can shed light on society's structures, especially as regards female sexuality and gender. In this sense, Abe is treated as both historical agent and object of interpretation and occasion for historical analysis—cultural actor and victim. She is an actor in the sense that she rejected social mores for love and murder; she is a victim in her youth and adulthood of others' callous affections, and the broader constraints...


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pp. 482-486
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