When Kinky Sex With a Geisha Led to Murder

When Kinky Sex With a Geisha Led to Murder

Eiko Matsuda as Sada Abe in the 1976 film by Nagisa Oshima, "In the Realm of the Senses," based on the story of Sada Abe.

SourceJanus Films

Why you should care

Because this puts a whole new spin on loving someone to bits.

The queue snaked outside the courthouse, while couples waited — as if on dates — to listen firsthand to a uniquely grim love story. Even the judge admitted to being sexually aroused by testimony of a murder-suicide gone wrong. The accused? A former geisha and prostitute who killed her lover and then chopped off his penis… because she was so madly in love.

Sada Abe confessed to killing Kichizo Ishida — a Tokyo restaurant owner — and spared the courtroom no details, freely sharing their adventurous lovemaking, including asphyxiation games so extreme it discolored Ishida’s face. Despite her confession, Abe was sentenced to just six years and became a symbol of feminine resistance in imperial Japan.

Abe sada

Sada Abe

Source Public Domain

I knew that if I killed him, no other woman could ever touch him again, so I killed him.

 

Born in 1905, Abe was raped as a teenager and sold by her family to a geisha house at 17. Opposed to the discipline required by the trade, she soon moved to street prostitution and brothel life. But by 1936, she had extricated herself from the tawdry industry and taken a job as a waitress at Ishida’s restaurant, where she quickly fell for her married boss. Within months, they were lovers, spending days at a time together in various inns, but Abe grew increasingly jealous of Ishida’s wife.

Having seen a show in which a geisha threatened her lover with a knife, Abe suggested she and Ishida play with a knife while having sex. “Most men would have made their excuses and left,” writes Giles Milton, author of When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain: History’s Unknown Chapters, “but not Ishida.” During their lovemaking, when Abe threatened her lover’s manhood, Ishida laughed it off, getting a “perverse kick out of the threat.” They then tried asphyxiation — going so far that Ishida was left bruised and sore. Falling asleep after two days of intense lovemaking, Ishida likely had no idea that his sexual exploits were at an end. Abe wrapped her kimono sash around his neck, strangling him to death, and then used the knife to cut off his manhood, wrapping it in a magazine before fleeing. She allegedly tried to use the severed organ for sexual pleasure in the days that followed. “I wanted to take the part of him that brought back to me the most vivid memories,” she later explained.

Abe told authorities she had never felt so connected to a man before Ishida. “I loved him so much. I wanted him all to myself,” she said. But because they were not married, she knew that as long as he remained alive, there was the risk that he would engage with other females. “I knew that if I killed him, no other woman could ever touch him again, so I killed him,” Milton’s book recounts.

Abe tried and failed to hang herself before being apprehended, hoping their tale would end in the tradition of shinju (Japanese for love-suicide). “There is no word for murder-suicide in Japanese,” says Christine Marran, associate professor of Japanese literature and cultural studies at the University of Minnesota. But the word “shinju” has evolved over the centuries, first referring to loving gifts — notes, poems — given by geisha to their patrons. Later, these tokens of affection became body parts, like fingernails, and the word eventually came to denote love-suicide. “It’s symbolic of the people giving themselves to each other and nobody else,” Marran says. The only problem for Abe? Shinju implies consent by both parties.

There was never any question about Abe’s guilt: She showed her bloody keepsake to prove her identity when authorities caught up with her days later, Milton writes. But her loving “devotion” struck a chord with the public, drawing crowds to the courthouse and making her the subject of numerous books and films. Sentenced to just six years, she was released after five.

Abe’s lack of sexual inhibitions stood in stark contrast to the imperialist era and its many “rules about how one can behave,” says Marran. Abe and Ishida’s perversions flew in the face of the era’s authoritarianism, with the couple seemingly unhampered by the restrictive social mores of the time. “They’re just living in their own world … and dedicated to each other in the middle of this imperial age.”

After the war, Abe became a symbol for literary types eager to explore the once-taboo subjects of sexuality and desire. American military forces occupying the island, Marran says, “promoted the writing of things that would divert attention away from forming unions and other political activities.” This translated into support for artistic pursuits centered on sports, films and sex, a focus that added to Abe’s notoriety.

At first she enjoyed the celebrity, but soon the former prostitute and murderer sought to reform her image — going so far as to sue a writer she felt wrote only about the most salacious aspects of her story. Marran, in researching her book on female transgression, uncovered photos of Abe looking very “prim and proper,” donning a kimono and serving tea — the silk sash the sole clue to her scandalous past.

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