Is Issei Sagawa the most terrifying cannibal killer of all time?
Have you ever had a dream that increasingly made you want to commit a crime? Issei Sagawa did. His name (佐川一政) is one well known in both Japan and internationally. Sagawa is the man who killed and consumed a woman; most notably, he’s the man who got away with it.
Not many people can say they’ve gotten away with murder, and certainly not as publicly as this man does. Issei Sagawa remains a minor celebrity even presently, appearing as a guest on talk shows and enthusiastically relating the account of his crime. Sagawa has even published a book on the pleasure of cannibalism and tried his hand at making his crime into a comic book.
So how on Earth, you may be asking, is a man who flaunts his crime, not in jail? How can a murderous cannibal be free to go about his business in the public sphere?
Well, the tale of Issei Sagawa is a long and twisted one. It all began with a dream.
Issei Sagawa’s dream
Sagawa says that his obsession with human flesh began when he was just a child. Sagawa always felt himself to be an undesirable person, and when the peak of his puberty turned him into a skinny man of barely five feet, he only resented himself even more. Sagawa was a premature baby and he’s theorized that this self-hatred might have contributed to his fascination with cannibalism.
Sagawa describes himself as a “weak, ugly and small man”, and after committing the crime of killing and eating a healthy, beautiful woman, he claims one of the reasons in doing so was that he wanted to “absorb her energy”.
But how does a curious little boy turn into a cannibalistic man? Sagawa says he believes his fascination grew from a dream he had as a child. One night he dreamt that he and his brother were being boiled in a pot to be eaten. Sagawa says that from that point on he began to fantasize about how it would be like to flip the script. Sagawa began to wonder what it would be like to eat another human rather than be eaten.
This interest would turn into an obsession, and eventually, his desire would be fulfilled. As with most premeditated killers, Sagawa’s fantasies escalated from intellectual curiosity to behavior.
Issei Sagawa’s escalation
Sagawa practiced an amount of restraint as his urges to consume human flesh became fetishized. He never acted on his secret yearnings until his college years, even as his desires became more sexualized. Sagawa decided to learn German while attending Wako University in Tokyo. While his desire to learn German was probably real too, his desire for the woman teaching him began to overpower him.
Sagawa told a British reporter, “When I saw this woman in the street I wondered if I could eat her”.
Sagawa did not care for women of his own ethnicity. It was tall, blonde, European women that he considered being “the perfect woman,” and at this point, he was intent on getting what he wanted. One summer day, he followed this woman home and climbed into her apartment. As luck would have it, she was asleep.
Having made no actual plan, Sagawa began to search the room for an implement to kill the woman with so he could eat her. Just as Sagawa spotted an umbrella that he thought might be up to the task of stabbing her, the woman woke up, saw him standing there, and screamed. Sagawa fled.
After this breaking and entering incident, Sagawa did actually seek help. He saw a psychiatrist and started to confess his deviant desires. Sagawa struck the psychiatrist as a danger to society since he had already begun to act out his fantasies. When the psychiatrist proceeded to categorize Sagawa as highly dangerous, Sagawa’s father (a wealthy man), constructed a cover-up and sent Sagawa to a school overseas.
In 1981, Sagawa began studying at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. Sagawa had not forgotten about how close he had come to fulfilling his fantasy in Tokyo. He became convinced that if he had only been better prepared, he could have succeeded in his dream of eating a woman.
One day, Sagawa encountered another tall, blonde woman. She was a 25-year-old Dutch student named Renee who was studying for a Ph.D. in French literature. Sagawa could not get out of his head the smooth, white skin of Renee’s arms. Eventually, Sagawa decided he must devise a way to get close to her.
Sagawa’s father once again had a hand in helping his son escalate, albeit, this time, unknowingly. Sagawa would use his father’s wealth to employ Renee as his private German tutor. He gave Renee a healthy amount of wages. Over time Renee and Sagawa developed a friendship, one where Sagawa would take Renee to art exhibits and invite her over for dinner (a preamble to what would come).
According to Sagawa, Renee liked being with him because of his obvious intelligence and ability to discuss a wide array of artistic topics. Sagawa had made romantic advances on Renee before but she insisted they stay only friends because she didn’t like him in a sexual way.
One fateful night, Sagawa decided it was time to take matters into his own hands and carry out his full plan. Sagawa gave Renee a German poem to read under the false pretense that he wanted to record her fluent reading. He then took out a .22-caliber rifle and shot Renee in the back of the neck.
Sagawa fainted after having shot Renee and when he came to he actually considered calling an ambulance. After a moment of consideration though, Sagawa told himself that he would be insane to give up a chance to live out his lifelong fantasy. So at the age of 32, Issei Sagawa had his first taste of human flesh.
The first thing Sagawa did was undress, Renee. He was pleased with the fact that she could no longer refuse him. Sagawa felt that she belonged to him now and that he would do everything in his power to fully possess her. The first piece of human meat Sagawa tasted was the nipple of her left breast and the tip of her nose. These pieces he cut off with a knife, but he wanted to know what it felt like to bite into her with his teeth.
Biting into another human was something he had fantasized about since first grade when he had fixated on the thigh of a male classmate of his. Sagawa says in his fictionalized account of the murder, In the Fog, “I touched her hip and wondered where I should bite first”.
In the end, he chose her right buttock, but found it too difficult to pierce the flesh with teeth. Sagawa resorted to continuing to use a butcher knife to cut into her and marveled at the corn-like color and consistency of human fat. Sagawa noted that it took him a long time to actually reach muscle when cutting into her buttock, but when he finally did, he tore off a chunk with his fingers and savored the taste.
“(It) melted in my mouth like raw tuna in a sushi restaurant”, Sagawa said.
Sagawa continued to try different parts of Renee’s body, doing things like frying it and consuming it with mustard. Sagawa took pictures of Renee’s mutilated and corpse and had sex with it late into the night while he listened to the recording of her reading the German poem.
In the morning he ate more. Sagawa particularly relished the white flesh of her arm that he had been so fixated on before, but knew it was time to get rid of the body. Sagawa chopped off her lips as well as some other choice morsels to enjoy later and began cutting the corpse into pieces with a hatchet. Sagawa says that when he held her decapitated head by the hair in front of him it was then that “I realized I am a cannibal”.
His plan was to dispose of her in a lake. Sagawa put the leftover pieces of Renee’s body into suitcases and hailed a cab. When people began to stare at Sagawa struggling with his heavy, bloody suitcases, he got spooked and decided to just leave the suitcases on the ground. Sagawa ran home to enjoy whatever other cuts of Renee’s body that he could before getting caught.
Issei Sagawa’s temporary capture
French police arrived at Sagawa’s apartment two days later with a search warrant. They found pieces of Renee in the freezer and Sagawa did not even attempt to deny what he had done. He said to the police “I killed her to eat her flesh”, and they arrested him on the spot.
When Sagawa stood trial the details that he began to relay about his crime were so indecent that the judge decided he wasn’t incompetent to stand trial. As a result, Sagawa was sent to Paul Guiraud Asylum.
Once again, Sagawa’s wealthy father, Akira Sagawa, enabled his son’s actions. Akira Sagawa worked out a deal with French authorities to have Issei Sagawa transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Japan. That in and of itself wouldn’t have been so bad if the French court hadn’t already deemed him unfit to stand trial. Issei Sagawa’s charges were dropped and off he went to return home.
Japanese authorities were unable to press any charges without the criminal paperwork from his crime’s country of origin. Sagawa had stayed in a Japanese psychiatric hospital for only fifteen months when he checked himself out in August of 1985. Just five years after his crime, Sagawa was a free man.
Issei Sagawa: cannibal on the loose
Issei Sagawa not only walks the streets free today, but makes money off of recounting his crime and talking about his cannibalistic condition. If you can possibly believe it, Sagawa has even been granted a passport to go to Germany before.
Sagawa names this one thing as his only regret in committing his crime: “What I truly wished was to eat her living flesh”, he said. “Nobody believes me, but my ultimate intention was to eat her, not necessarily to kill her”.
Sagawa still dreams of consuming humans again. Sagawa shamelessly related to Vice in an interview, “Just today, I saw a girl with a really nice derrière on my way to the train station. When I see things like that, I think about wanting to eat someone again before I die. So yes, I do still harbor these desires, and I specifically want to eat a Japanese woman this time. ”
Sagawa maintains that he hopes people will stop thinking of him as a monster even while continuing to divulge his plans on how he would consume human flesh again: “I think either sukiyaki or shabu shabu (lightly boiled thin slices) is the best way to go, in order to really savor the natural flavor of the meat”.
Issei Sagawa lives as a freelance artist drawing naked women. To this day Sagawa wishes to convince people that cannibalism isn’t such an abominable thing.
Sagawa lives on
Multiple bands have written songs referring to Issei Sagawa. The Rolling Stones wrote a song entitled “Too Much Blood” that featured Sagawa.
Caniba is a 2017 documentary that interviews Issei Sagawa. He was also featured in the UK documentary Excuse Me for Living. Sagawa himself has been a restaurant reviewer, magazine columnist, television commentator, and even a porn star if you care to venture into that dark side of the internet.
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