Changing Perceptions: From Perverted Murderer to Respected Celebrity

The Story of Sada Abe

Iris Reinbacher

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Japan in the early 1930s was a country torn between ancient traditions and modern Western influences. This split ran through the entire nation, from the lowest laborer to the highest classes, including the government. In almost yearly coup d’etats the military sought to increase its political influence. In particular the February 26 incident in 1936 where several high-ranking politicians were killed, roused the people. Once again, the rift in the country was exposed and the political changes after the incident offered continuous fodder for ongoing discussions.

But in May 1936, a notorious murder case took the collective mind off of these serious thoughts, and summer began with a new media sensation and an unexpected focus on female sexuality.

The Crime

Portrait of Sada Abe, ca. 1935.
Sada Abe, ca. 1935.

In the early hours of May 18, 1936, a woman named Sada Abe strangled her married lover Kichizō Ishida while he was sleeping. Afterwards, she lay caressing his body for several hours before she cut off his penis and scrotum and wrapped it in paper. She tidied up the room as well as she could and left the inn in which they were staying, not without leaving instructions to let the man sleep. At around 8 in the morning, she disappeared in into the busy streets of Tokyo.

When the crime was detected, the media went into a frenzy and took the public with it. “Sex sells” is not a phenomenon of the internet age, and when Sada Abe’s background as former geisha and prostitute became known, press and public doubled down. The inn in which the murder had taken place was besieged by people who wanted to have a glimpse of, well, anything. Kichizō’s restaurant — also Sada’s workplace — became more popular than ever, everybody wanted to breathe the same air as the murderess and her victim, and possibly picking up murderous vibes.

Public Opinion and Verdict

Sada Abe was finally arrested on May 20, in another inn where she had checked in under a false name. By then, public opinion that had been fed with gruesome details had already pronounced the verdict. The 31-year-old was seen as a prime example of what female sexuality could lead to if left unchecked. She was…

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Iris Reinbacher

Scientist by training. Writer by choice. Japanophile by calling. What I’m up to: goinggaijin.com What Kyoto is up to: whatsupinkyoto.com