The Story Of Issei Sagawa, The Japanese Cannibal That Walked Free

April 30, 2018 | No Comments » | Topics: Morbid

He was a short man, just under five feet tall.  His hands and feet were small and even his voice was more like that of a girl.  He had mentioned in some interviews that he wasn’t the kind of man most women would find attractive, and he surmised that being acutely self-conscious of his shortcomings might have fueled his obsession with “the perfect woman.”

In Cannibal Killers, Moira Martingale describes how Issei Sagawa, a brilliant Japanese student, obsessed over tall women with Occidental features.  Eventually fantasy was not enough, so while studying for his degree in English literature at Wako University in Tokyo, he became attracted to a German woman who was teaching him the language.

“When I met this woman in the street,” he later said to British reporter Peter McGill, “I wondered if I could eat her.”One summer day, he crawled through the window of her apartment, intent on killing her.  To his delight, she was asleep.  Even better, she was wearing hardly anything at all.  He looked for something to use to knock her out or stab her and he spotted an umbrella.  However, before he could do anything, the woman woke up and saw him there.  She screamed, scaring him, and he fled from her apartment.

But he did not forget what he most desired.  It had been almost too easy to get close to a woman, and if he prepared himself better, he felt sure he could indulge in his fantasy.  He just had to plan it more effectively, so he began to look around for his next victim—one that would not get away.  It wasn’t until he went to Paris a few years later that he found the woman that he could not get off his mind.  Her white skin, the fleshy shape of her buttocks, and her beautiful features both repulsed and drew him.  He started to insinuate himself into her life.

Sagawa believed that he loved these women and that he could demonstrate it by consuming them.  It wasn’t unheard of. 

Sagawa Strikes

While studying at the Censier Institute in Paris in 1981, Sagawa spotted another tall, beautiful northern European woman woman, Renee Hartevelt.  He says that when he sat next to her in a class, he fell instantly in love and could not stop thinking about the white skin of her arms.  She was the perfect woman for what he wanted to do, but this time he had to be more careful.  He had to be ready.

Renee was 25, blonde, and independent.  She spoke three languages and had a bright future, with the aim of getting a Ph.D. in French literature.  Sagawa asked her to teach him German, and since his father was quite wealthy he could pay her well.  She accepted.

According to him, she liked his obvious intelligence and ability to discuss everything from Impressionist paintings to Shakespeare to European literature.  He wrote her love letters and invited her to concerts and exhibits. He was small, feminine, and walked with a limp, yet she often went with him and invited him to her apartment for tea.  They even danced together, allowing Sagawa a more physical sense of his fantasies.  He found these Nordic women overpowering, and even as he claimed he loved them, he wanted to posses and destroy them.

One day he invited Renee over to his apartment for dinner.  He asked her to read a poem by his favorite German expressionist, which she did.  After she left, he smelled and licked the place where she had sat and vowed that he would eat her—that would allow him to possess her forever.

Soon he asked her to come over again for dinner.  He had a cassette recorder, he said, and he wanted to record her reading of the poem.  She accepted for the evening of June 11, 1981, and Sagawa prepared himself to act out his ultimate fantasy.

Upon arriving in Paris, he had purchased a .22-caliber rifle “for self-protection.”  He had it ready when Renee arrived. He seated her on the floor, Japanese-style, to drink tea. Into her drink, he put some whiskey to make her more pliant. They talked for a while as Sagawa waited for the whiskey to have its effect.  Then he told Renee that he loved her and wanted to take her to bed.

She resisted him.  She found him engaging but not sexually attractive.  She wanted only to be his friend.

Sagawa nodded.  He then got up to get the book of poetry, while Renee sat on a chair.  Sagawa handed the poem to Renee to read and started the recorder.

While Renee recited the poem in her native language, Sagawa came up behind her with his rifle and shot her in the back of the neck. She fell off the chair.  He continued to talk to her but she failed to answer.  He was surprised by how quiet it was.  Then he noticed the amount of blood that flowed out of her wound.  At first, he attempted to clean it up, he finally gave up.

Ultimate Fantasy

He then undressed her, finding it difficult to remove clothing from a corpse.  But he was pleased that now she could no longer refuse his advances.  She belonged to him.  Then he got a knife and used it to cut off the tip of her left breast and a piece of her nose.  These he consumed.

“I touched her hip,” he later wrote in his fictional account, In the Fog, “and wondered where I should bite first.”  He chose her right buttock, but he found it difficult to bite into, and then realized he had a headache.  He then went on to describe, moment by moment, the appearance of her fat and muscle, and the taste of it.

As fat oozed out of one stab wounds, Sagawa said it had the consistency and appearance of yellow corn.  He smelled it and found that it had no odor.  Cutting deeper to find the flesh, he placed a chunk into his mouth.  “[It] melted in my mouth like raw tuna in a sushi restaurant.”To him, there was nothing more delicious, and he looked into Renee’s dead eyes to tell her so.  He was ecstatic now that he had indulged himself in his fantasy.  He had this gorgeous body all to himself.  It had taken him until the age of 32 to consummate his desires, but he had done it.

Then he got serious.  Using an electric carving knife, Sagawa began to cut Renee into parts.  He laid out strips of flesh to store for later and nibbled on a few pieces raw.  Then he made a quick meal of fried human flesh with mustard.  He took photographs of the mutilated corpse and had sex with it.  “When I hug her,” he recorded, “she lets out a breath.”  He told her that he loved her.

As he cooked and ate more of her remains, he listened to the recording he had made of her reading the poem.  When he was finished, he used her underwear as a napkin to wipe his mouth.  He then returned to her body, cut off a breast and baked it, but disliked the greasy consistency.  He found that he preferred her thighs.

When he finally felt exhausted, he took what was left of the corpse into his bed to sleep with it. He knew that in the morning he would have to prepare to get rid of the evidence.

The next day, finding that the body did not yet smell, he continued to try parts of it, in particular the arm that had so fascinated him.  He chewed on it all the way from the underarm to the elbow.  “I had no idea,” he wrote, “that it would taste so good.”Sagawa was curious about a few of the body parts that seemed more repulsive.  He hesitated over what to do, but decided to go ahead and indulge.  Cutting out the anus, he put it into his mouth, but the smell overpowered him, so he spit it out.  He tried frying it, but that failed to diminish the odor, so he gave up and returned to the body.

The Honeymoon is Over

By this time, several large flies swarmed around the corpse, so Sagawa took that as a sign that he’d lost Renee.  The “honeymoon” was over.

He then used a hatchet to chop her into pieces that would fit into the suitcases he’d bought specifically for this purpose.  Yet even as he dismembered her, he grew excited, so he used her hand to masturbate.  Then he chewed on her nose and heard the noise of the cartilage crunching.  Since he’d often thought about chewing on her lip, he removed it and set it aside.  That part he would keep for later pleasures.

“I want her tongue,” he said in his fictional account.  “I can’t open her lower jaw, but I can reach in between her teeth.  Finally it comes out.”  He cut it off, popped it into his mouth and watched himself chewing it in the mirror.  Then he went for the eyes.

The final step for Sagawa was to explore the internal organs, which stung his hands with digestive acid, and then used the hatchet to cut off her head.  With so many parts removed, it looked like a skull.  He grabbed the hair and hung the head in front of him, an experience that in retrospect caused him to say, “I realized I am a cannibal.”

By the time he was finished bagging the pieces and locking them into a suitcase, it was midnight of the second day.  He called a cab.Arriving at the Bois de Boulogne, he lugged the suitcases into the park, intending to shove them into the pond.  However, he had a difficult time with his heavy burden.  When he spotted some people watching him, he got scared and just left the suitcases.  Martingale reports in Cannibal Killers that a couple went closer and saw a female hand protruding from one of the bloodstained cases, so they called the police.  Police opened the suitcases, found the remains, and began the task of tracing the bags back to the purchaser.

In the meantime, Sagawa returned to his apartment to enjoy the pieces of Renee Hartevelt that he’d put into the refrigerator.  As he ate another gruesome meal, he thumbed through some pornography.  Each day of his remaining freedom, he ate another piece, claiming in his later renditions that it became sweeter with time.

A Sexual Fetish

Sagawa, who clearly had a sexualized lust, told a British journalist that his compulsion for cannibalism probably came from a childhood dream he’d had that left a huge impression.  He was in a boiling pot with his brother, being prepared for a meal for someone else.  From that point on, he began to fantasize regularly about cannibalism, switching his role from the disempowered “meal” to the empowered consumer.  Yet he wasn’t interested in ingesting the girls of his own race; he envisioned eating large blond women with white skin.  For him, the possibility of being intimate with them in this way was highly erotic.

After his first breaking-and-entering incident in Tokyo, he actually went to a psychiatrist to confess his dark desires.  The man believed that Sagawa was highly dangerous—probably because he’d begun to act out his fantasies—but Sagawa’s father managed to engineer a cover-up and then sent his son out of the country to another school. The mental health professionals who evaluated him later also saw dangerous tendencies in him, from psychosis to psychopathy.

Yet in the end, none of their diagnoses mattered.

No Trial, Just Fame

When the police arrived at his apartment two days after the murder with a search warrant, Sagawa let them in.  They opened the refrigerator and found pieces of a female body inside, including lips.  Sagawa freely confessed to what he had done, adding that he had a history of mental illness.  In fact, his descriptions were so detailed and salacious that a judge decided he was not competent to stand trial: he was clearly delusional.  Sagawa received a sentence of incarceration for an indefinite period in the Paul Guiraud asylum.  Three psychiatrists who evaluated him said that he’d never be cured.According to Brian King, who edited Lustmord, while in the hospital, Sagawa corresponded with several members of the Japanese literati, who sent him books about other cannibals.  “I realized I was not so unusual,” was his comment.  He also said that he’d learned how to go about such a crime without getting arrested.

It pays to be rich, and his father, Akira Sagawa, president of Kurita Water Industries in Tokyo, eventually worked out a deal in 1984 to have Sagawa transferred to the Matsuzawa psychiatric hospital in Japan.  The superintendent there believed that he was sane and ought to be in prison.  There Sagawa remained for only 15 months before he was granted his freedom in August 1985, again, thanks to his father and very much against the advice of the superintendent.  After killing a woman and consuming her remains, Sagawa was able to go freely about in society only five years after the crime.  He was even granted a passport to go to Germany.What made the situation worse was how he reveled in what he did and was only too happy to tell people about it on television talk shows.  He even agreed to appear in several Japanese pornographic films, and he wrote four novels.  The one in which he described the details of his murder sold over 200,000 copies.  Thanks to his father, he’d gotten away with murder, and he was quite proud of it.

Now Sagawa enjoys being the focus of tabloid media, granting interviews and making videos to indulge the voyeuristic curiosity of those who want to get closer to someone who has eaten human flesh.  He apparently finds the attention amusing and does not feel that he did anything wrong.  “The public has made me the godfather of cannibalism,” he stated, “and I am happy about that."

The Rolling Stones wrote and recorded a song about Sagawa’s gory deed, calling it, “Too much Blood,” and Sagawa tried his hand at a comic book version of the story.  He also wrote a weekly column for a tabloid publication, edited an anthology of cannibal fantasies, and was featured on the cover of a Japanese gourmet magazine.  Under an assumed name, he even managed to get women to pose nude for him.

On his web site, he offers excerpts from his rendition of his crime and discusses why cannibalism is not such a horrific act.  For those who want to see his art, he shows examples of his paintings—mostly of the fleshy buttocks of white females.In a magazine article, he said that he now envisions being eaten himself by a young Western woman, because, he insists, only an act like that will save him.

– Katherine Ramsland


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