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William Johnston uses the police interrogation of Abe Sada as the
basis for the majority of Geisha, Harlot,
Strangler, Star. His use of predominantly primary sources facilitates a
detailed account of the Abe Sada incident which excludes the sensationalism or
judgemental overtones that are apparent in many texts on Abe Sada. When
Johnston introduces the work, he states he wants to retell Abe Sada’s story in
her own words and he is largely successful in this. Throughout the text, he
regularly quotes Abe Sada directly and has included his entire translated notes
of the police interrogation at the end of the book.

However, Johnston acknowledges that the documentation is not ‘free
of deletions or distortions’ (2004, p.15). There are times where Abe Sada will
contradict herself or appear to be trying to appease the interrogator rather
than simply stating the truth. Moreover, the Japanese police had complete
control of the evidence that was presented in court and could shape the
interrogation however they saw fit. These aspects all call into question the
reliability of Johnston’s sources.

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Another issue that can be taken from Johnston’s choice of sources
is ‘what is lost when a
conversation is put on paper, where tone and inflections and facial expressions
are hard to duplicate’ (Siniawer, 2010). Johnston frequently comments on
Abe Sada’s emotions, but it is challenging to accurately interpret her feelings
when describing her crime in the absence of accompanying body language.

 

A key theme throughout Geisha,
Harlot, Strangler, Star is love. In chapter 12, Johnston commits a lot of
time to differentiating between types of love. Johnston moves that Abe
Sada ‘loved’ ?miya, she respected him and held great affection for him.
However, she was ‘in love’ with Ishida: ‘an object of total absorption and identification’
(Johnston, p.91).

Johnston heavily criticises physicians, scholars, and fiction
writers for viewing her as merely a sexual being rather than a woman deeply in
love. He exclaims that the constant emphasis on her sexuality suggests more
about male attitudes than it does about Abe herself.

Johnston’s insistence that Abe Sada was acting out of love is
problematic as it is impossible to unequivocally recognise love. Either
Johnston is simply taking Abe Sada’s testimony of being in love as fact or he
is applying his personal interpretation of what love is to the case.

The idea that Abe Sada was either pathologically sex-crazed or
deeply in love excludes the possibility of alternative psychological conditions
that could have been in play. In Poison Woman
(Marran, 2007), Christine Marran explores these possibilities in detail; she
outlines several theories put forward by psychologists as to why women may
commit crimes. Marran explores The
Psychoanalytic Diagnosis of Abe Sada (?tsuki et al., 1937) which
concludes that Abe Sada’s actions were ‘a deviation from normal human behavior
produced by an immature sexuality with limited access to a normal sexual object’
(Marran, 2007, p. 153). Marran presents a much more compelling case as to why
Abe Sada murdered her lover than Johnston.

Willian Johnston endeavours to humanise Abe Sada, regularly
reiterating how ordinary she is prior to and after her arrest. He remains deeply sympathetic to her. He concludes: ‘if
this book has convinced the reader that Abe Sada’s desires and passions were
understandable in the context of her life and times, it has been successful’
(Johnston, 2003, p. 162). However, whilst he is successful in eliciting
sympathy for Abe Sada, he gives little insight in to how such an ordinary woman
could commit such an extraordinary crime. Whilst the prospect that Abe killed
Ishida out of love is poetic, it is an inadequate explanation.

Nevertheless, Johnston’s main goal is to facilitate a better understanding of Abe
Sada and the societal pressures she, and countless other Japanese women, faced.
His intention was not to analyse and explain the cause of Abe Sada’s crime in
the way in which Marran does in Poison
Woman.

 

As the first extensive English account of Abe Sada’s life, Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star is of
great importance. Johnston’s writing is accessible and valuable to anyone
interested in the ‘Abe Sada incident’. Although the main source material is of
questionable accuracy, Johnston is able to successfully separate the realities
of Abe Sada’s life from the myth and sensationalism that surrounds her name.

Despite not giving any definitive answer as to why Abe Sada
murdered Ishida
Kichiz?, Johnston offers great insight into the early 20th Century
attitudes towards women and sexuality; he provides the reader with the tools to
form their own conclusion and a strong foundation for further research.

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