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10 Dark Facts About Issei Sagawa, The Japanese Celebrity Cannibal

by Joe Duncan
fact checked by Jamie Frater

It’s bizarre that so few have heard of Issei Sagawa, whose story is not only fascinating for its strange and unusual twists and turns but also because, well, it actually happened. Sometimes referred to as the Japanese Celebrity Cannibal, Sagawa’s story is something straight out of fiction—a tale of horror that might as well have been pulled from extravagant gonzo literature, with pop-art elements. It’s a tale of dreams cut short, murder, violence, death, and one of the most extreme cases of injustice the world has ever seen.

What began as a study-abroad opportunity for Sagawa ended decades later. His life forever changed, made into a celebrity cannibal who has appeared in movies and TV shows and has written books about his crime. It was one of the great international spectacles of our age and has largely flown under the radar. Sagawa is a man almost designed for shock and spectacle, as we will soon see. Here are ten facts about the Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa.

10 Tiny

Photo credit: France Inter

For such a big presence and massive personality, Issei Sagawa is actually a very, very short man by anyone’s standards.

Issei was born premature on April 26, 1949, and was reportedly small enough to fit in his father’s hand. As an adult, he still remained very tiny for the rest of his life, standing less than 152 centimeters (5′).[1] That’s a rather small stature for a man with such a big bite.

9 Cannibal Fantasies

Photo credit: Documentary Heaven

“I was determined to eat someone before I was too old, before my passion died out,” Issei Sagawa would later go on record saying, sounding eerily like an artist discussing his life’s work. After a series of strange events, Sagawa would have the freedom to not only talk about his crime but to wear it proudly and in public. But the seeds of cannibalism began very, very early. According to Issei, after having a dream as a young child that his brother and he were being boiled in a large cast-iron cauldron, he had always fantasized about becoming a cannibal.[2]

Fantasizing about his eventual crime is something Issei shared with many serial killers, though he was not a serial killer himself. He imagined killing and cannibalizing a woman throughout his life; he considered it a task he would one day need to do. Sagawa actually drew inspiration from “Sleeping Beauty,” viewing it as a tale of a cannibalistic witch and always dreamed of eating a beautiful woman as a way to show her how much he loved her, which he even confessed to a psychiatrist at one point.

8 A Modest Killer

Photo credit: sixpegs

Like so many other people who end up being demented killers, the Japanese cannibal was quiet, modest, unassuming, nonthreatening, and generally shy. He was always very withdrawn from his peers and a bit of a loner.[3] When Issei showed up for an interview in 1992, he wore sunglasses to cover his eyes and hide himself from the world.

It’s safe to say that there are probably some strange thoughts going on behind those shades. This all lends a bit of credence to the old adage, “It’s always the quiet ones you’ve got to watch.”

7 Intelligent

Sagawa, unlike many sociopaths and contrary to popular belief, is a highly intelligent man. He would later go on to author several books in life.

Sagawa was always someone who enjoyed learning. As a boy, he excelled in school and was like a sponge for knowledge.[4] Through a series of twists and turns, and his bizarre life events that unfolded, Sagawa would become a bit of a literary intellectual in his native Japan.

6 The Police Nearly Had Him Early

Then came the day Issei would commit his first attempt at his ultimate lifelong fantasy of murdering and cannibalizing a woman he loved. His encounter would be an odd one. Throughout 1970, he stalked a German woman living in Tokyo and eventually tracked down where she lived. Issei would then watch her through her window without her knowledge. Sagawa had always wanted to have a tall, blonde, Nordic or Germanic woman as dinner one day—it was something that followed him throughout his life, like a calling.

After watching her through her window for a while, Sagawa decided it was time to make his move and actually broke into her apartment. He had dreamed of this since elementary school, and now it was finally his chance as the woman lay asleep before him, vulnerable. But on this occasion, Sagawa awoke her when he entered her room, and she began to scream. Sagawa fled the scene, but he was later arrested for attempting to rape the woman. No one, including the police, knew what his real intentions were. With no criminal history, he was not held. Also, Sagawa’s wealthy father paid off the woman so that she did not file charges against his son. What would have happened if charges were filed?[5]

5 Paris Nights

Though a brilliant student and highly intelligent student, Sagawa failed his entrance exam for the very highly ranked Japanese university that he had attempted to gain acceptance into. After this, he decided to study abroad.[6] Sagawa chose to study literature and language in Paris.

This would lay the foundation for what was about to unfold—one of the most shocking stories of the 20th century. Issei wanted, above all, to seek a doctorate in literature at the Sorbonne in France.

4 The Murder

It was the night of June 11, 1981, in Paris. The time had come for Issei Sagawa to finally carry out the fantasy he’d been harboring like a monster in the closet since childhood; it was time for murder … and cannibalism. He had fallen in love with a tall Dutch woman by the name of Renee Hartevelt in recent months, and, considering that his goal was a Ph.D. in literature and that he was an avid student of language, she thought nothing of it when he asked her to teach him some German. She would come over to his house, and he would pay her for language lessons for a while. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, Sagawa decided it was his time to live the fantasies he’d had all these years.

He had bought a gun, and it was time he killed Renee Hartevelt. He shot her in the back of the neck. Issei claims to have fainted afterward. When he woke up, he raped her corpse. He would then proceed to finally fulfill what he saw as his destiny by dismembering her body and eating her. He would remove over 7 kilograms (15 lb) of her flesh and eat her over the next three days.[7]

Bois de Boulogne, a park in Paris, was no stranger to odd things happening. It was a place where many streetwalking types, drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and other criminals would frequent. Sagawa was seen by many such people entering the park with two suitcases. The suitcases, of course, contained the remains of Renee Hartevelt. She had been dismembered and cannibalized. Being as short as he was, Issei was easily unmistakable. Knowing he’d been seen, he fled back home and waited for arrest.

3 Trial And Freedom

Photo credit: New Criminologist

Sagawa didn’t deny anything, not in the slightest. He openly admitted to killing and eating the 25-year-old Dutch girl who had been studying abroad and giving him German lessons in her free time. He confessed, “I killed her, and I ate her flesh,” in his typically mild, undisturbed manner.

Sagawa was arrested and brought up on charges of first-degree murder, understandably. The police and the prosecutor had a perfect case; the defendant had confessed to murder and cannibalism. But fate would see to it that the story of Issei Sagawa didn’t end here, and a French judge would rule the man legally insane and unfit to stand trial. Sagawa would be deported from France and sent back to Japan, where he would be locked in an asylum while Japanese authorities figured out what to do with him.[8]

The authorities would try to go ahead and press charges, but a loophole in Japanese law made it impossible for them to do so. It also didn’t help that the French authorities wouldn’t turn over any of their relevant documents. All Japan could do was send Sagawa to an asylum, where he would eventually be declared mentally competent and released, free again to roam the streets of Tokyo.

2 Celebrity

Photo credit: New Criminologist

After his release on August 12, 1986, Sagawa returned to a world where he was actually embraced by the public, with newfound notoriety as a small-time Japanese celebrity. Issei would go on to author several books, participate in game shows in Japan, and more. He would become a guest speaker at many places and even used his newfound fame to appear in an exploitation film, playing a character not unlike himself in a movie titled Unfaithful Wife: Shameful Torture. In this film, Sagawa portrayed a bloodthirsty and sadistic sexual predator, much like himself or Marquis de Sade. As a bizarre testament to Japanese culture and our modern zeitgeist, Sagawa would even become a freelance food critic.[9]

Sagawa would also become an artist, composing nude paintings and other such art from his apartment in Tokyo. He was on the road to success. From scholar of literature and drifter to imprisoned cannibal and then ultimately to Japanese celebrity household name, Issei Sagawa certainly has one of the most interesting tales of our time.

1 Things Haven’t Changed

Photo credit: Vice

Issei Sagawa would extend an open invitation to his female fans and haters alike: If they want to, try to kill him. The famous last words of the German serial killer Peter Kurten, as he approached the guillotine to certain death by executioner, were, “Tell me. After my head has been chopped off, will I still be able to hear, at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck? That would be a pleasure to end all pleasures.”

In a statement that similarly echoes those eerie words, Sagawa would go on record tauntingly saying:

I would like to invite any woman who wants to kill me to step forward. Beautiful women only. That would be the ideal way for me to die. Maybe they can shoot me up with morphine so that I don’t feel any pain—although I guess the pain is part of the pleasure. Dying instantly is boring, so I want to savor the process of being killed.

An alternative would be to drown in female saliva. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be covered all over in women’s spit? If I could die drowning in it, that would be my ultimate dream come true. I’m a cowardly man who killed another person, yet I can’t face killing myself. So, I guess dying at the hands of a woman would be my way to redemption.[10]

I like dark stuff, horror, philosophy, and history. This will be shared on my Facebook pages, Murderworks Horror, Serial Killer Memes, and Beautifully Disturbed.

fact checked by Jamie Frater