GEISHA — HARLOT — STRANGLER — STAR: A Woman, Sex & Morality in Modern Japan, by William Johnston. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, 245 pp., $29.50, (cloth).
ISOLATION, by Christopher Belton. New York: Leisure Fiction, 2003, $6.99, 372 pp., (paper).

To be honest, I’ve never really understood the enduring fascination with the Abe Sada Incident. It’s quite remarkable that so many non-Japanese who know little or nothing about events that took place here in the 1930s have nevertheless managed to develop a curiosity about this woman and her notorious misadventure, which, on May 18, 1936, culminated in the death and mutilation of her paramour.

Abe, 31, was a seasoned veteran in the sex trade. Her lover, Kichizo Ishida, 42, was proprietor of the restaurant where she worked. The two became totally enraptured in a brief love affair, and eventually began experimenting. She found that, while in the throes of intercourse, tightening the silk cord from her obi around his throat would stimulate the vagal reflex, and/or reduce circulation to the brain, causing his procreative member to swell impressively.

Ishida had been drinking heavily and also had taken a cold medication. In his enervated, semiconscious state, he blacked out at the worst possible moment and she intentionally or unintentionally — it’s hard to be certain — maintained pressure until he expired. After removing a certain ghastly souvenir with a knife, she left her undying declaration of love scrawled in blood on his thigh.

William Johnston, a professor of Japanese history at Wesleyan University, has produced this 245-page account of Abe’s life and times that adopts a feminist viewpoint somewhat critical of the public’s attitude of schadenfreude that arose in the wake of the incident.

The social milieu in which Abe was born and raised provides few real insights into her behavior. Nonetheless it has been pointed out that crimes involving genital mutilation were not particularly rare in Japan up to that time, and this particular case owes most of its notoriety to its having occurred soon after the failed military coup d’etat the previous Feb. 26.

Nearly one-quarter of this short work comprises a verbatim translation of six police interrogation sessions along with various endnotes and a bibliography. It may be useful to have such material on record, but one cannot help but wonder whether Abe’s actual account was really as sanguine and straightforward as it comes across in the police document presented at her trial.

Fatal distraction

It’s become so common for the titles of potboiler fiction set in Japan to contain words like ninja, sword or chrysanthemum, that this 2003 work might have completely eluded me if it hadn’t been for a keen-eyed friend who passed it along.

“Isolation,” like Stephen King’s “The Stand” and others in this genre, begins with a laboratory accident and quickly develops into a desperate race against time, as a rapidly spreading bio-weapon, this time bearing a “Made in Japan” label, threatens to eradicate mankind.

The protagonist, Peter Bryant, is an American with a Japanese mother, a pen-pusher who toils at a well-paying but mundane job preparing patent applications for Hamada Seiyaku Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

It seems that Hamada was browbeaten by the government into developing a biological agent; but rather than just go through the motions, its researchers outdid themselves. Instead of the usual flu, anthrax or ebola, they came up with a superbug in the form of a mutated strain of meningitis that can kill within days and is virtually untreatable. As the casualties mount, other countries are soon forced to halt air service to Japan. The South Korean navy even fires on Japanese civilian ships that refuse to turn back.

An interesting sub-plot involves a group of Internet bloggers, whose identities are mostly unknown to one another, who begin working behind the scenes to seek a solution until Uncle Sam can come riding to the rescue.

Bryant, who is trusted by Hamada coworkers to relay leaks to the Americans, eventually provides information that enables production of an antidote in world-record time.

Author Belton, a resident of Yokohama, appears to take great relish in his portrayals of Japan’s leaders as venal, indecisive and incapable of effective crisis management. An excerpt:

Kiyoshi Aizawa [the prime minister] surveyed his cabinet and found it wanting. He doubted if there was a country in the entire world that could boast such a morbid collection of misfits . . . . In fact, most of the people present came from political families and had been propelled up the ladder by their own relatives. The job of running the country had been turned into a cottage industry.

The story’s premise may be far-fetched, but with superbugs lurking out there such as SARS, treatment-resistant TB and avian influenza, the notion of Japan’s vulnerability to epidemic disease cannot be easily brushed aside.

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