illustration by Emi Yokoyama
If there's one thing the Japanese understand, it is obsession. In 1936, when an ex-prostitute strangled her lover, cut off his genitalia, and carried them around in her handbag for a few days, the nation nodded sagely and made her into something of celebrity. This was the kind of dark, obsessive, death-tinged love the average Japanese person could instinctively understand. Sex and death, death and sex: just like peaches and cream, really.
Following her arrest, Abe was taken to Takanawa police station in Tokyo, where a famous photo shows her, still dressed in her kimono, surrounded by a group of jovial, smiling policemen, as she herself smiles. The police record of her interrogation and confession became a national best-seller, and crowds thronged around the courthouse when she was put on trial. Convicted of second degree murder and mutilation of a corpse, she was sentenced to six years in prison but released in 1941, following a pardon from the Emperor.
The story that unfolded from the investigation revealed a tale of sensual obsession that, like Abe’s smile, existed in a nihilistic realm far beyond mere passion and love. Having done what she had done, she was beyond caring, a liberated woman in a sense that had absolutely nothing to do with burning one’s bra.
It all began in 1905, when Sada was born into a well-to-do family of tatami mat makers. By the age of 15, she was a gregarious, fun-loving girl, toying with the Western fashions that were becoming increasingly popular. After rape by a family acquaintance sent her off the rails, she became a teenage tearaway, until, at the age of 17, her father sold her to a geisha house, which did not necessarily mean prostitution, but, lacking the more artistic talents associated with the geisha, the only way she could get by here was through providing sexual services. Over the next few years, she drifted in and out of various forms of prostitution.
Unlike the rest of the world, where debt will often force a woman into prostitution, in Abe's case it was the opposite – debt occasionally forced her into living a semi-decent life. Geisha houses and pimps often kept control over their workforce by keeping them in debt. The only way to escape from this debt, which typically could never be paid off, was to go on the run and assume a new identity outside the world of prostitution. Sada Abe did this several times taking waitress and maid jobs, and occasionally becoming a private mistress.
In 1936, while attempting to go straight as a waitress at a restaurant named Yoshidaya, she met Kichizo Ishida, the man whose genitalia she would later show to police to prove that she was who she said was. Aged 42, Ishida was the restaurant’s owner, but spent more time womanizing than working, as the restaurant was largely run by his wife.
Inevitably, Ishida and Abe started a relationship. Although this might look like yet another example of a serial seducer getting his way with a woman whose defences were in poor repair, it seems that Ishida, too, was seduced in some deep way. Soon after their relationship began, the two lovers agreed to meet at a teahouse in Shibuya. In those days, 'teahouses' served the function that 'love hotels' now serve. Although their intention was just a quick tryst, they stayed in bed for four days, and then only left to move to a new teahouse. Maids here later reported that the couple would continue their lovemaking even when they entered the room. A few days here, and they were on the move again to another teahouse in another part of town, suggesting that, each time, they were wearing out their welcome and hardly touching the tea.
Finally, after more than two weeks, Ishida returned to the restaurant and his wife. Left alone, Abe felt intensely jealous.
"It is hard to say exactly what was so good about Ishida," she later explained. "But it was impossible to say anything bad about his looks, his attitude, his skill as a lover, the way he expressed his feelings. I had never met such a sexy man."
At their next meeting, a few days later, Abe, inspired by a play she had seen in the meantime, pointed a knife at Ishida’s penis and playfully threatened him. She later told investigators that he was startled, but also seemed delighted. Two nights later, while they were making love, she wrapped her obi around his neck and started choking him. Afterwards, Ishida said that it greatly intensified his orgasm, and they took turns doing this to each other.
In Ishida, Abe had finally found a kind of true love, except it wasn't true love in any normal sense. Replacing overwhelming emotion, there was all-consuming sensual stimulation. Instead of complete faith and dependence on each other, there was the intensity of mutual erotic asphyxiation. Their love was sex tinged with death, but all the more volatile and intense for this. That night as Ishida slept, having taken a sedative to soothe pain brought on by the asphyxiation, Abe wrapped her obi around his neck, and, in an attempt to freeze her bliss at its most perfect moment, killed her lover.
The theme of death at the moment of perfection is one that runs through Japanese culture like a black, unbreakable thread. It underpins their appreciation of cherry blossom, is expressed in their poetry, and even helped the kamikaze pilots make their hopeless sorties.
In that moment, Abe made their love 'perfect,' while also satisfying a powerful sense of jealousy. She later told police, "After I had killed Ishida, I felt totally at ease, as though a heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders, and I felt a sense of clarity."
With Ishida dead, her actions now took the form of some quaint ritual. She lay with the body for a few hours, then, amputated the genitalia. With the blood, she wrote, "Sada, Kichi together" on his thigh, then, carved her name into his left arm. Finally, she put on his underwear, and left the inn at about 8 a.m. Later, asked why she had severed Ishida's genitalia, she replied, "Because I couldn't take his head or body with me. I wanted to take the part of him that brought back to me the most vivid memories."
Moving to an inn in another part of Tokyo, she planned to commit suicide one week after the murder. For the next few days, with Ishida's penis always in her handbag, she did remarkably normal things – going to the movies, shopping, having a massage, etc. She also wrote several farewell letters and tried to say 'goodbye' to the penis.
"I felt attached to his penis and thought that, only after taking leave from it quietly, could I then die. I unwrapped it and gazed at it. I put it in my mouth and even tried to insert it inside me. In the end, I intended to jump from a cliff on Mount Ikoma while holding on to his penis."
This final obsessive gesture was prevented by the timely arrival of the police. While Abe was sent to prison for a few years and later became a minor celebrity, the famous genitalia were moved to the museum of the Tokyo University Medical School, from where they later mysteriously disappeared.