By crime historian and writer Paul Drexler
Warning: Some details in this true crime story are graphic in nature.
Say the name Sada Abe to any old man in Japan and his hands will automatically move to protect his groin. Sada’s crime, committed ninety years ago was, and continues to be the most notorious crime in Japanese history. Her actions turned Japanese society on its head. ‘In The Realm of the Senses’, a 1976 movie based on the crime, was so controversial that the full version has never been seen in Japan.
Sada Abe was born in 1905 into a prosperous but troubled family in Tokyo. Ignored by her father, spoiled by her mother, and overshadowed by her promiscuous older brother and sister, Sada grew up without parental guidance. At the age of 15, she was raped by the older brother of a friend. In the deeply sexist Japanese world of the 1920s, rape was rarely punished. Because of this Sada believed that she would never receive a respectable marriage proposal and she became more rebellious. She came and went at all hours of the day.
A typical day for Sada was breakfast in bed, followed by lounging in the entertainment district’s fashionable restaurants. Her interests were fashion, flirting, and partying with her friends, financed by money stolen from her parents. Had Sada been born 70 years later in California she would have been a valley girl or influencer.
In 1922, when she was 17, her parents sold her to a geisha house, often considered a solution for promiscuous girls. Sada had neither the training nor the inclination to be a submissive geisha, entertaining men by playing the lute. She was put into the bottom caste of geishas, women whose entertainment was more orgasmic. After contracting syphilis, Abe became a licensed prostitute. Prostitution paid well until she was accused of stealing from the other girls and she drifted from brothel to brothel. In 1934 Sada was arrested for unlicensed prostitution. She was bailed out by Kinnosuke Kasahara, a wealthy customer of a brothel where Abe had worked.
Sada became Kasahara’s mistress. He paid her a steady income and gave her a house but she became too much for him. “She was really strong, a real powerful one. Even though I am pretty jaded, she was enough to astound me” he recalled. “She just wasn’t satisfied unless we did it three, four times a night. I loved it at first, but eventually, she became exhausting.” According to Kasahara’s friends, Sada broke off the relationship when he refused to let her take other lovers.
In 1936 Sada started working for Kichizō Ishidate, a restaurant owner, and a notorious womanizer. He soon became both the love of Sada’s life and her victim.
On April 23, 1936, Abe and Ishida met for what was supposed to be a short fling at a tea house/hotel. It turned into a marathon session in which they stayed in bed for four days. During the next 10 days, they continued their alcohol-fueled orgy at two other places, sometimes with musical accompaniment. Abe later said, “It is hard to say exactly what was so good about Ishida. 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.”
When Ishida returned to his wife on May 8th, Abe became ferociously jealous and began drinking heavily. On May 11th, when they met again, Abe threatened Ishida with a kitchen knife and said she would make sure he would never play around with another woman. Ishida smiled. Two nights later Abe began choking Ishida, and he told her to continue, saying that this erotic asphyxiation increased his pleasure.
On May 16th Abe choked Ishida with her obi (kimono sash) for two hours during sex. Once she stopped, Ishida took a large dose of sedatives to soothe his pain. As he lapsed into unconsciousness Ishida said “If you start to strangle me, don’t stop, because it is so painful afterwards.” While he slept Abe wrapped her sash twice around his neck and strangled him to death. She later told police, that after she strangled Ishida, “ A heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders, and I felt a sense of clarity.”
After holding on to his body for two hours she used her knife to cut off Ishida’s penis and testicles and put them inside her obi. She then planned her suicide.
“I decided that I would flee to Osaka, staying with Ishida’s penis all the while. In the end, I would jump from a cliff on Mount Ikoma while holding on to his penis.”
Abe carved the word “Sada” on Ishida’s thigh and left.
The Tokyo paper’s headline read:
“Former Geisha Girl’s Crime makes thrilling news for empire.”
When Police discovered Ishida’s body, they were galvanized into action. Exactly what Sada had done was far too graphic for the media of the day, so they reported only that she had mutilated the body. The public soon learned the real story. “Sada Abe panic” swept the country. A false Sada Abe sighting in Tokyo’s Ginza district nearly caused a riot.
On May 19th, Abe went shopping and saw a movie. Under a pseudonym, she stayed in an inn in Shinagawa on May 20th, where she had a massage and drank three bottles of beer. She spent the day writing farewell letters to Ōmiya, a friend, and Ishida. Abe planned to commit suicide one week after the murder and attempted sex with Ishada’s penile remains.
Police detectives, suspicious of the alias under which Abe had registered, came to her room. “Don’t be so formal,” she told them, “You’re looking for Sada Abe, right? Well that’s me. I am Sada Abe.” When the police were not convinced, she displayed Ishida’s genitalia as proof.
It is difficult to overstate how much Sada’s actions challenged Japan’s society. This photograph taken at the police station is emblematic. You would expect that a person who committed such a murder would be an angry psychopath, looking threatening at the camera, surrounded by grim-faced police. But this photograph of Sada Aba in police custody, shows her smiling demurely, surrounded by four grinning police officials. This could be a photo of a beauty contest winner, surrounded by contest officials, or a housewife receiving an award from the Tokyo Beautification Department.
The police were amazed by how different Sada was from their expectations.
“The interrogating officer was struck by Abe’s demeanor when asked why she had killed Ishida. “Immediately she became excited and her eyes sparkled in a strange way.” Her answer was: “I loved him so much, I wanted him all to myself. But since we were not husband and wife, as long as he lived he could be embraced by other women. I knew that if I killed him no other woman could ever touch him again, so I killed him …”
In 1917, Tessie Wall, San Francisco’s top madam, gave the same reason for shooting her husband when he sought a divorce (“I shot him cause I loved him, damn him.”). Her husband, who survived, did not press charges.
Many other women, such as Lorena Bobbitt have committed similar crimes, but for different reasons. Abe’s crime was committed not out of vengeance, but out of love.
Chief trial judge Hosoya quietly made sure that none of the judges’ wives would be menstruating during the trial. Why? It was taboo for a man to have sexual relations with his wife during her period. Judge Hosoya thought that if the trial sexually stimulated the judges during their wives’ periods they would be without the proper means of relieving their excitement. Kichizo’s penis and testicles were confiscated from Sada and given to Tokyo University Medical School’s pathology museum, where they were put on public display,
At the trial, Sada pled guilty, was given a sentence of six years, and was released in 1941.
But, to her increasing sorrow, she had not been forgotten. After the war, many popular writers used her as a character in their stories. When best-selling writer, Kimura Ichirō, wrote a novel about her, Sada sued him for libel, and then wrote her own version of her crime. Her attempts to control her story had failed. Sada saw her relationship with Ishida as a love story. Others saw it as a cautionary tale of lunacy. Still, others saw her both as a figure of resistance to the patriarchy and a victim of it.
In 1947 Sada starred in A Woman of the Shōwa Period, a one-act travelling production
From 1952 to 1969 Abe lived as a waitress and hostess in a working-class neighborhood restaurant. In a case of performance art copying real life, writer Don Ritchie described Abe making an entrance in front of a boisterous group of drinkers. “She would slowly descend a long staircase that led into the middle of the crowd, fixing a haughty gaze on individuals in her audience. The men in the pub would respond by putting their hands over their crotches, and shouting out things like, “Hide the knives!” and “I’m afraid to go and pee!” Abe would slap the banister in anger and stare the crowd into an uncomfortable and complete silence, and only then continue her entrance, chatting and pouring drinks from table to table.” Ishida’s penis and testicles disappeared from Tokyo University’s pathology museum in 1946.
In the Realm of the Senses
In The Realm of the Senses remains one of the most controversial films in movie history. This 1976 movie was considered so shocking that it has never been shown in its entirety, in Japan.
Although there is much nudity in this movie, very few people would use it as foreplay. Any movie that begins with urchins throwing pebbles at an old man’s genitals is unlikely to be followed by the use of massage oil. For the film to be made it had to be a French-Japanese production and much of the film’s editing was done in France to avoid Japanese censors.
The year is 1936—A right-wing military faction has attempted a coup on the government and official control of private life is becoming common.
The film is artistically framed and shot in lush color. It begins with Sada Abe taking a job at Kichizō Ishida’s restaurant. Kichizō soon makes advances to Saba, stopping her on the stairs and reaching under her kimono..
There was no simulated sex in the film. These scenes between Sada, played by Eiko Matsuda and Ishida, played by Tatsuya Fuji, were real. The actors were as committed to their characters as director Nagisa Ōshima was to the story.
Sada Abe and Kichizō Ishida can be seen in different ways. Are they intrepid pioneers exploring the limits of sexuality, or is the relationship a bizarre folie a deux, with each partner driving the other to madness?
Imagine them as sexual Captain Kirks, exploring strange new worlds, boldly going where no one has gone before. In some ways though, Sada Abe and Kichizō were like toddlers, exploring each other’s bodies. Instead of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, ”it is “I’ll take this (add a type of food], stick it in your [A body orifice], and [eat it]. Kichizō puts an egg inside Sada, takes it out and eats it. They violate all the customs. They have sex in the open. They make love when she has her period, and mingle their body fluids. They spend four days having sex without leaving their bed. A servant offers to clean their room and says “there is a strange smell in in here. Sada replies, “we like the smell.” An old woman tries to entertain them. At Sada’s direction, Kichizo makes love to the old woman. It’s a game of “I dare you” where the dares get wilder and wilder with Sada leading the way. You find yourself waiting for, and expecting the lovers to crash down to earth.
Kichizo and Sada move on to sexual asphyxiation, where one partner is choked during sex, resulting in increased pleasure. She asks him to choke her, he refuses but agrees to have her choke him. Kichizo agrees to anything Sada demands, with a beatific smile on his face.
Near the end of the movie, as Kichizo walks through an empty shabby town he is confronted by soldiers marching past him the opposite way. On the other side of the street is a crowd of people waving flags, and banners and cheering as soldiers walk by. In the next year, 1937, Japan invaded China, a harbinger of World War II.
Kichizo returns, Sada asks to strangle him, and he agrees. As Sada squeezes her hands around Kichizo’s throat she looks both disheveled and orgasmic. Finally, she kills him.
There is a kind of dream sequence where Sada is lying naked in the middle of a sea of wooden benches as a small boy and his father run around her. Next, we see Sada in the room with Kichizo’s body. In a bloody graphic scene, Sada completes her task.
A narrator briefly explains what happened afterward. At the very end of the movie, the screen reads:
She was still smiling radiantly when she was arrested. The sympathy of the public made her strangely popular.
The movie created a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was shown five times to accommodate the audience’s interest. Critic Anton Bitel’s view of the movie finishes with this sentence. “Oshima has crafted an uncompromisingly hardcore study in sexual obsession, which also serves as an allegory of the insularity and madness of Japan’s phallocentric, self-destructive imperialism in the build-up to its explosive wartime climax.”
There are cultural reasons for Japan’s obsession with Sada Abe. In Japan’s paternalistic culture women were seen as inferior. They were supposed to walk two steps behind men and be sexually submissive. Sada’s assertive sexual attitude was threatening to most men.
Sada was both a Dokufu and a Succubus. A Dokufu, or poison woman, is a common stereotype in Japanese culture, used to describe powerful women and women criminals. A Succubus is a demon in female form that appears in dreams to seduce men, usually through sexual activity.
Societies under stress often develop a taste for the erotic and grotesque, what the Japanese call Ero guro nansensu (erotic-grotesque-nonsense). Germany’s Weimar Republic, as seen in the movie Cabaret, was an example. Sada’s case also served as a distraction from Japan’s increasing military and political conflicts.
There have been many spectacular crimes in the past 1000 years of Japanese history; assassinations, serial killings, and even massacres. But with at least six movies and twelve books based on her story, Sada Abe’s crime remains the most sensational of them all.
About the Author: Paul Drexler is a writer and crime historian in San Francisco. He regularly writes for the San Francisco Examiner with his column ‘Notorious Crooks’ and he is the Director of Crooks Tours of San Francisco offering walking tours of the city and its criminal history. Paul has appeared in a number of documentaries for the Discovery ID network and on Paramount TV where he featured as an expert on the Zodiac Killer.