The life of the legendary Japanese geisha murderess Sada Abe fascinated millions worldwide and inspired the movie, In the Realm of the Senses, which was banned upon release
Before Lorena Bobbit….before Aileen Wuornos, before Jodi Arias….there was Sada Abe, the former geisha, prostitute and sugar baby (before such a thing was heard of) who brutally killed her lover while having sex with him…and kept “something of his” as a souvenir.
Highly infamous in Japan, but little known in the United States, Sada Abe’s story is something out of a twisted B-movie or sexploitation film. Born to an upper-middle-class family in Tokyo on May 28, 1905, Sada Abe had an idyllic and pampered childhood. As the youngest child in the family to live past infancy, Abe was given anything she wished for and allowed to do whatever she liked. By the time she was a preteen, she was studying singing and dancing, foregoing school completely just to focus on her abilities as an entertainer, and wearing makeup. In Japanese society of that time all of these activities were seen as befitting only the lower class, “loose women” or prostitutes.
However, the charmed life she led would not last long. As she spent more and more time in the street, and spent more and more time having sex with local boys, her reputation started to sour. It reached a sad nadir when she was raped by a local street tough when she was 15. For this “disgrace,” she was cruelly punished by her parents by being sold away to a nobility house to become a geisha, something she did not want to be, when she turned 17, in 1922.
The society of geishas was then under a caste system. Because she had not trained since childhood to become a geisha, Abe was never considered anything but bottom caste—a whore, a glorified prostitute who was only allowed to entertain through sex. When she’d finally had enough of the abuse from her male clients as well as the other geishas, and upon discovering she had contracted syphilis, Sada Abe decided to strike out on her own and become a legally licensed prostitute.
She started working in the Tobita brothel district in the late 1920s and continued at this for several years. The pay was better than that for a geisha, as was the access to medical attention and care. However, she soon butted heads with the owners of the brothel, and gained a reputation for stealing money from johns. Eventually, she escaped the Tobita brothel and worked as a hostess and as a waitress. Unsatisfied with the pay, she returned to sex work; however, this time, unlicensed and on her own terms. Now in her late 20s, she was arrested for unlicensed prostitution in 1934, and was bailed out by Kinnosuke Kasahara, a well-connected, wealthy friend of the last brothel where Abe had worked. Kasahara was attracted to Abe, and she soon became his kept mistress. He provided her with an income, her own house and anything she asked for, but even he became overwhelmed with Sada Abe.
In his deposition to the police, Kasahara recounted, “She astounded me. She just wasn’t satisfied unless we did it three, four times a night. I loved it at first, but eventually she became exhausting.” He then added angrily, “She is a bad woman. A slut and a whore. What she has done makes it clear….she is a woman that all men should fear.”
Abe reported that her relationship with Kasahara was abusive, saying, “He never loved me, and he treated me like an animal. He was the kind of man who would beg me every time I suggested we break up.” Those close to Kasahara reported that Abe had asked Kasahara to take other lovers. When he refused, she immediately broke it off. Abe needed everything the way she wanted it.
Needing work after her breakup with Kasahara, but not wanting to enter the sex industry again, Abe began working at a restaurant in Nagoya. There she met Gorō Ōmiya, a professor and up-and-coming politician. He paid for her move back to Tokyo, and while the two were lovers, he proved to be quite the mentor for Abe, suggesting that she own a restaurant to secure her financial independence (so she wouldn’t have to return to sex work). He got her an apprenticeship at an upscale Tokyo restaurant in January 1936. The owner of this establishment was none other than the man she would kill….Kichizō Ishida.
Ishida was known as a womanizer and serial cheater who let his wife do the majority of the restaurant’s running so he could do as he pleased. Soon he decided he wanted Sada Abe as his next lover. In April 1936, they consummated their relationship on the floor of the restaurant, then proceeded to drink, eat, and make love in various tea houses/hotels throughout Tokyo. They planned for their time together to only be a short fling, but instead spent days in bed. Ishida had been away from his restaurant for two weeks when he finally returned in May 1936, after so much time spent with Sada Abe.
“What she has done makes it clear…she is a woman that all men should fear.”
Abe, meanwhile, started ignoring her work at the restaurant and drinking heavily. She felt that with Ishida, she had found true love. Just the thought of Ishida being back with his wife made her sick with jealousy. She knew because of his history as a womanizer, he would never leave his wife for her.
Abe began to contemplate killing him, and just a week before his murder, she bought a big kitchen knife. However, when she threatened him with it, putting the knife to the base of his penis and threatening to cut it off, so he would never entertain other women, he laughed it off, thinking it was a joke. They once again returned to the teahouses, and one night mid-sex, Abe took the sash of her kimono and choked him with it. Ishida thought she was doing it to enhance his pleasure and asked her to continue, not knowing her ulterior motives.
That night, as Ishida slept, Sada Abe once again wrapped her sash around his throat, this time strangling him to death. After killing him, Abe then took her knife, cutting off his genitals, wrapped them in paper and put them in the pockets of her dress. She then used the blood to write “Sada, Ishida no Kichi Futari-kiri (定、石田の吉二人キリ” (“We, Sada Abe and Kichizō Ishida, are alone together”) on the bedsheet, and also used the knife to carve her name, 定 (“Sada”), into his left arm. She dressed him and then left the teahouse, telling the staff that Ishida was sleeping, to not disturb him.
Abe went missing. After Ishida’s body was discovered, a massive search began for Sada Abe. Her crime caused intense national panic and became sensationalized in the media. Her former mentor Gorō Ōmiya’s political career was ruined forever. Her siblings were found and questioned about Sada Abe’s behavior. False sightings were reported of her, resulting in panic, stampedes and even a reported traffic jam in Ginza.
Abe planned to commit suicide. After attempting necrophilia with Ishida’s detached penis, she decided to jump from Mount Ikoma, with it in her hand. The day before her planned suicide, the police found her in her room in Shinagawa. Not believing it was really her, Sada Abe showed them Ishida’s penis as identification.
Abe was then arrested and interrogated over eight times. She kept a strangely calm demeanor throughout, baffling police. When asked why she severed Ishida’s genitalia, she said, “I couldn’t take his head with me, and I figured I wanted to take the part of him that had brought me the best memories.” When asked why she had killed Ishida, her eyes took on a strange sparkle and she gushed excitedly, “I loved him so much and wanted him all to myself. But since I could not be his wife, I knew he would go to other women. And I knew if I killed him, no other woman could ever touch him. So I killed him.”
The fact that she supposedly killed him out of love is what captivated the nation. At the time, Japan was experiencing political and military troubles and a looming war in China (the Second Sino-Japanese War), and the story of Sada Abe provided a fascinating, if grotesque, distraction for the general public. Sada was convicted of murder and sentenced to six years in jail. She only served 5, being released in 1941. However, when she came out of prison, her fame only grew.
Upon release from prison, Sada Abe tried to live under another name. She moved to Saitama Prefecture and entered another relationship. However, this was short-lived, and when her true identity was discovered, she ended her relationship and decided to embrace her notoriety.
After World War II, Japanese social mores and culture changed immensely. Far from the strict censorship of media that existed when Sada was younger, the new Japanese media embraced the obscene and sleazy. In this new atmosphere, Sada Abe was seen as a critic of totalitarianism, a champion of women’s advancement, even a symbol of freedom.
When asked why she severed Ishida’s genitalia, she said, “I couldn’t take his head with me, and I figured I wanted to take the part of him that had brought me the best memories.”
She sat for interviews with numerous personalities and writers, and eventually a book was written from these talks, The Erotic Confessions of Sada Abe. The book was a national bestseller, further propelling Abe to eternal infamy. However, Abe herself felt that the book portrayed her as a pervert. In her mind, she had committed this crime out of love. To set the record straight, she penned her own account, simply titled Memoirs of Sada Abe, published in 1948. She made paid appearances at hotels and restaurants, where male patrons would yell “Hide the knives!” and cover their crotches for amusement.
Years later, her story went to the screen, in a 1976 erotic thriller called In the Realm of the Senses, directed by Nagisa Oshima and widely banned both in Japan and in other countries, but was shown heavily censored at the 1976 New York Film Festival, where it received acclaim. The theme song of the film was covered by many artists worldwide, including American artist Quincy Jones.
Here’s a 7-minute, homemade trailer for In the Realm of the Senses:
As for Sada herself, she disappeared after 1970. Nobody knows exactly what happened to her. The director of In the Realm of the Senses, Nagisa Oshima, said that he met her, as an old woman with her hair shorn, in a secluded nunnery in Kansai, on Japan’s main island of Honshū. However, this claim has never been substantiated and to this day her later life and death remains unknown.
Sada’s life, crime and legacy is truly one of the most bizarre mysteries of the 20th century, and captivates the Japanese public to this day, much in the same way the Manson Family murders do in the United States. Truly if anyone committed the ultimate crime of passion, it was Sada Abe, geisha murderess.