A Meiji fascination for female murderers

The Meiji period brought in a lot of relaxations in censorship and this brought about a boom in the number of newspapers all vying to gain readers. Japanese cities in the 19th century already had a very high literacy rate (estimated at around 80%) and so the demand for printed reading matter was huge in cities like Edo/Tokyo. 

Nothing quite sums up the newspaper media of the day than their clamour for stories with plenty of murder, betrayal, love, suicide and honour – the gorier and more shocking the better! Above all sub genres of newspaper stories is that of the female murderer and many of these stories moved very swiftly from the newspapers to books and then into kabuki theatre as part of the new trend for realism. In fact, although they based the stories around real people & events, they were very far from realistic and a lot of the “facts” were gross exaggerations or just plain embellishments to make the stories juicer.  

Toji Awase Oden no Kanabumi (The Tale of Takahashi Oden, the She-Devil)

Onoe Kikugorō V & Ichikawa Sadanji I in the play “Toji Awase Oden no Kanabumi” (The Tale of Takahashi Oden, the She-Devil), staged at the Shintomi-za theatre from the 29th May 1879

This play by Kanagaki Robun is based loosely on the life of Takahashi Oden, the last woman to be executed by beheading in Japan, in 1879. Robun did much of his research as a journalist working for his own newspaper (the Kana-yomi shinbun) which specialised in the Meiji trend of lurid tales of female criminals (dokufu-mono).

In the case of Takahashi Oden she was simply convicted of killing Kichizo Goto, an antiques dealer, for his money. At the time there were rumours that she had poisoned her late husband too but this is unlikely because she seems to have been particularly dedicated to him and tended him during his death. It’s much more likely that this “crime” was just tacked on to make it seem like she was a crazed serial killer.  

There seem to have been many plays made about her story – another is “Tojiawase Oden no Kanafumi” by Mokuami Kawatake, which was staged at the Shintomi-za theatre from 5th June 1879 

Kunichika – Ichikawa Danjūrō IX, Ōtani Monzō II, Bandō Kakitsu I, Onoe Kikugorō V, Nakamura Sōjūrō I & Onoe Umegorō in the play “Tojiawase Oden no Kanafumi” by Mokuami Kawatake, staged at the Shintomi-za theatre from 5th June 1879


Another print by Kunisada of the same production of the same play

Tsuki to Ume Kaoru Oboroyo (The fragrant night of the moon and plum)

Kunichika: Nakamura Fukusuke IV as a rickshaw driver, Onoe Kikugorō V as Oume & Onoe Matsusuke IV as Minekichi in the play “Tsuki to Ume Kaoru Oboroyo” (月梅薫朧夜, “The fragrant night of the moon and plum”) at the Nakamura-za theatre on 28th April 1888

The basic facts seem quite simple – Hanai Oume (花井お梅) (1863 – December 14, 1916) originally called herself Hideyoshi and was a geisha working in Shinbashi (Minato Ward, Tokyo) but she left that trade to start her own tea-house called Suigetsuro. At that time a tea-house was a place for men to be entertained by geisha who would serve food and drink, play music and tell jokes. Sex was not on offer but it was common for girls to make some extra money on the side from selling sexual favours or to charm rich men into sponsoring them. 

Bandō Kakitsu I & Onoe Kikugorō V in the play “Keshō kagami utsusu omokage” (化粧鏡写俤), the scene of the Yin Dynasty; and Nakamura Fukusuke IV, Onoe Baikō (Onoe Kikugorō V) & Onoe Otogorō in the play “Tsuki to Ume Kaoru Oboroyo” (月梅薫朧夜, “The fragrant night of the moon and plum”), The scene in front of the criminal court, staged at the Nakamura-za theatre from 28th April 1888

She seemingly had a lot of arguments with her father and an employee called Minekichi Hakoya, also called Minesaburo Yasugi. Minekichi seemingly embezzled 100 ryō from her and so she killed him in Okawabata on 9th June 1887 when she was 24 years old. She handed herself in to police and was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in November of that year. In 1903, at the age of 40, she was granted a pardon and discharged from prison. 

After her release she went on the stage (koza) and played herself – narrating her story as a rakugo storyteller.

She died in 1916 at the age of 53.

Japanese Wiki page: https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E8%8A%B1%E4%BA%95%E3%81%8A%E6%A2%85

English translation: https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/person/Oume%20HANAI.html

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