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The Terrible Crimes of Sada Abe

A destructive passion that led to—and transcended—death.

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  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

Just when you think you’ve seen and heard it all, reality taps you on the shoulder and hands you a new tale of terror. Sada Abe was a geisha and prostitute infamous for murdering her lover, Kichizo Ishida, by erotic asphyxiation back in 1936. After killing him, she cut off his genitals—both penis and testicles—and carried them around like a memento and sex toy. She was sentenced and shut away in prison for five years. The murder became sensationalized by the Japanese media and, naturally, grew to the scale of an urban legend turned true crime.

Abe was born to an upper-middle class family in Tokyo. The family bore eight children, Sada being the second youngest, though tragedy would befall many, leaving only four to reach maturity. The family was typical, with nothing alarming to suggest any ill-will. Yet there was always at least one bad seed. Shintaro, Sada’s brother, ran away with his parents’ money. Her sister, Teruko, was sent by their father to work at a brothel, a way to earn money and to punish her for allegedly being promiscuous at such a young age. 

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During all this, Sada Abe had less of a home to go to, given all the familial drama, and soon fell in with a bad crowd. She soon became difficult and rebellious. At the age of 14, she was raped by one of the other teenagers in the group. Like her sister Teruko, Abe’s erratic and negative behavior led to being sold to a geisha house in Yokohama. It didn’t take long for Abe to discover being a geisha was layered in difficulty and frustration, with ranking and apprenticeships keeping most from being true “stars.” Abe never made it past the lower ranks, which meant most of the time she provided sex for clients. After five years of sex work, Abe contracted syphilis which led to an increase in testing and physical examinations, not to mention being treated more like an everyday prostitute.

Abandoning her career as a geisha, Abe worked as a prostitute in the Tobita brothel district and, much like her teenage years, developed a reputation for being difficult. Her wanderlust and anger led to frequent pilfering of clients’ pockets and attempts to leave the brothel, only to be tracked down time and time again. After a muddled mixture of departures and a brief stint outside sex work as a waitress, Abe returned to prostitution, this time amid the unlicensed ranks. Another run-in with danger, Abe was arrested during a police raid on an unlicensed brothel in October 1934. Soon afterward, an admirer of hers, Kinnosuke Kasahara, persuaded her into becoming his mistress, giving her a house and income.

Kasahara had gone on record with the authorities long after Abe’s arrest, claiming that she was singular and powerful. “She was enough to astound me. She wasn’t satisfied unless we did it two, three, or four times a night,” he said of her insatiable sex drive. Eventually, Kasahara became exhausted. “What she has [made clear is] that she is a woman whom men should fear.” Of course, Abe didn’t think fondly of Kasahara after the fact, perhaps due to him being unwilling to leave his wife for Abe.

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Intending to leave sex work, Abe worked as a waitress before becoming an apprentice at the Yoshidaya restaurant in February 1936. The restaurant was owned by Kichizo Ishida, a womanizer of some repute, leaving his wife with handling most of the business. Ishida soon made sexual advances towards Abe, who entertained the attention. It didn’t take long for them to engage in sex. Though it was supposed to only be a quick fling, Abe might have just found someone with a similarly high sex drive, because they traveled from hotel to hotel drinking and having sex for days. Their encounter lasted two weeks. When it was over, Abe began drinking excessively, claiming that Ishida had revealed what true love could be. She was jealous of his wife, and not long after, Abe began drumming up plans to murder Ishida. On May 11th, 1936, she pawned off some of her stuff to buy a kitchen knife. 

In her confessions, Abe explained how she threatened Ishida with the knife: 

"I pulled the kitchen knife out of my bag and threatened him as had been done in the play I had seen, saying, 'Kichi, you wore that kimono just to please one of your favorite customers. You bastard, I'll kill you for that.’”

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After they once again engaged in a bit of a sexual bender, Abe took the knife to the base of his penis, claiming that she would ensure that he would never have sex with another woman. Ishida believed it to be a joke. During continued sex, Abe increased the roughness, often strangling Ishida, who encouraged it due to it increasing the height of his orgasm. Abe asked of him the same, hands wrapped around her throat tightly. If that wasn’t enough, they soon began using sashes and garments to strangle each other during orgasm. In the early morning hours of May 18th, 1936, while Ishida was asleep, Abe strangled him with the sash, only this time she didn’t stop. Abe told the authorities later that, after his death, she felt relieved. “A heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders, and I felt a sense of clarity.” 

sade abe
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Abe laid around with Ishida’s dead body for hours before finally severing his penis and testicles. She wrapped them with a magazine for safekeeping. Using his blood like ink, she wrote on his left thigh and bedsheets, “We, Sada and Kichi(zo) Ishida, are alone.” Using the same murder weapon, she carved “Sada” into his left arm. If that wasn’t enough, she put on his underwear and left the scene of the crime. Abe went missing until after Ishida’s body was found, and it didn’t take long for the media to pick up the story.  

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What commenced was an all-encompassing public panic dubbed “Abe Sada panic.” Perhaps similar to the panic surrounding the Zodiac killer during the height of the killer’s crimes, the panic in Japan resulted in countless reports of Abe sightings, many of them false. During all of this panic, Abe acted under a pseudonym and remained in an inn in Shinagawa. She  planned to commit suicide in the week after Ishida’s murder, after indulging in acts of necrophilia using Ishida’s penis. She fully explained her suicidal intentions to the authorities in vivid detail:

“I unwrapped the paper holding them and gazed at his penis and scrotum. I put his penis in my mouth and even tried to insert it inside me. It didn't work however though I kept trying and trying. Then, 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.”

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Abe didn’t get her shot to commit that final act of “intimacy” with Ishida’s remains. The police tracked her down and instead of running, Abe confessed and even showed them Ishida’s decomposing genitals as proof of her identity.

During her arrest, Abe was interrogated extensively over eight sessions, where much of the events were fully revealed in heinous detail. She spoke excitedly about wanting Ishida all to herself and the reason why she severed his genitalia, her belief being to carry the most intimate part with her to aid in remembering the most vivid moments she and Ishida had together. 

So much of the case was given to the public eye. The media ate it all up and would continue to do so long after her sentencing. On December 21st, 1936, Abe was convicted of murder and mutilation of a corpse. At the time of the sentencing, Abe protested the 10-year jail sentence, preferring that she be sentenced to death under the death penalty. Instead, she was given six years in prison.

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The legacy and infamy surrounding Abe would continue for decades with countless interviews, documentaries, and books detailing both Abe’s crimes and the spectacle that had grown to encapsulate the murder. In many ways, the spectacle exceeded the crime itself. Though speculation as to why vacillates every which way with nothing conclusive, maybe it had to do with the time in which Abe murdered Ishida out of passion. Among the first homicides in the country to have been done out of love, perhaps Abe captured the minds of the public because we all know the deadly power of the heart and mind when given completely to the love of another.