Issei Sagawa: The Japanese Cannibal Who Went Viral
He killed a woman and ate her flesh; instead of being imprisoned, he found fame and fortune
On April 26, 1949, a baby boy was born in Kobe, Japan to extremely wealthy and privileged parents. He was born prematurely and was so small, he could fit into the palm of his father’s hand. That same hand would feed, hold and protect him through anything, no matter how dark, no matter how sinister. That baby was Issei Sagawa, the Japanese Cannibal Killer.
Issei’s cannibalistic desires began at a fairly young age after a dream in which he and his brother were being boiled in a pot, about to be eaten. Rather than be disturbed by this vivid and unusual dream, Issei began wondering what it would be like to taste human flesh. Issei’s desire to eat human flesh only grew when he began attending school. In the first grade, he found himself infatuated with a male classmate’s thigh. While he sat at his desk, he fantasized about what it would taste like.
Issei wasn’t attracted to women of his own race. The women who caught his eye were white, tall, and beautiful. However, it wasn’t a sexual desire Issei wanted to fulfill, it was a cannibalistic one.
Issei had been insecure about his stature ever since he was a young boy. At only 4'9" tall and with an exceptionally thin frame, Issei consistently referred to himself as a “weak, ugly and small man.” But, by age 24, he had come up with the perfect solution to his problem: he would eat the flesh of a white, tall and beautiful woman, and by doing so, he would become the same. He would become taller, he would be given the milky white skin he had always wanted, and he would become beautiful.
While walking down the street one day, Issei stumbled upon who he referred to as, ‘the perfect woman.’ Once Issei saw her, he knew he had to have her.
Issei followed the woman for some time and after learning where she lived, he returned late one summer night and broke into her home. He slowly crept into her bedroom where he found her asleep. Realizing he had no plan in place, Issei grabbed the closest item to him; an umbrella. He decided he would knock the woman unconscious with the umbrella, at which point he would retrieve a knife from the kitchen and slice off some of her flesh before fleeing. However, Issei’s ever-so-creative plan didn’t go as well as he had hoped.
He accidentally brushed the woman’s leg, she awoke terrified and began screaming. She pushed Issei to the ground and phoned the police. Issei was arrested and charged with attempted rape. Of course, he had no desire to inform the authorities of his true intention that night. Fortunately for Issei, his father had no shortage of funds. He offered a large sum of money to the victim in exchange for dropping the charges against his son, and she agreed.
A few years later, at the age of 27, Issei moved to Paris, France, to study literature at Sorbonne, one of the world’s most renowned research universities. By this time, Issei’s desire to eat human flesh had only advanced. He decided it would be easier to prey on sex workers, but surprisingly, his morals stood in the way, “Almost every night I would bring a prostitute home and then try to shoot them, but for some reason, my fingers froze up and I couldn’t pull the trigger.”
For the next four years, Issei successfully kept his cannibalistic desires hidden and buried, that was until 1981, when he met Renée Hartevelt.
Renée Hartevelt was a 25-year-old Dutch woman. She met Issei at Sorbonne where she too was a student, studying French literature. When Issei first laid eyes on her, all of his deviant desires came rushing back; she was 5'10", white, and beautiful. He later told authorities it was, “love at first sight.”
Issei formed a close friendship with Renée and once he gained her trust, he hired her as a private tutor. Renée would often visit Issei at his home where she would tutor him in German and in exchange, he would pay her a very generous salary. In addition, Issei would take Renée to fancy art exhibits and dinners. Of course, all of these expenses were funded by his father. Renée genuinely enjoyed her friendship with Issei. She even mentioned him in letters she wrote to her parents in which she described him as a friendly and highly intelligent man.
However, Renée was not naive. She knew Issei had formed a crush on her, but assumed it was harmless and would eventually dissipate. In reality, Issei had formed more than just a harmless crush on Renée. He had become completely fixated on her. Images of her smooth white skin replayed over and over in his mind, and he decided he had to have her inside of him.
On June 11, 1981, Issei asked Renée to come over and translate a German poem for him for a school assignment, in exchange, he would cook her dinner. Renée happily agreed. Unfortunately, Issei’s true intentions had very little to do with poetry.
Renée sat at Issei’s desk and began translating the poem, which Issei was recording for later use. While her back was turned, Issei retrieved his .22 calibre hunting rifle, aimed it at the back of her neck and pulled the trigger. To Issei’s surprise, the gun misfired. Rather than have a change of heart, Issei’s failed attempt made him feel humiliated and even more hysterical. He decided he would kill Renée, no matter what it took.
Two days later, Issei invited Renée back to his home. In the exact same fashion, he crept up behind her and pulled the trigger. This time, the gun went off, killing Renée instantly.
Issei fainted from the shock of what he had just done. When he awoke, he briefly considered phoning the authorities, but quickly decided against it. He was closer than he had ever been to tasting human flesh, and he wasn’t going to stop now.
After having sex with Renée’s corpse, Issei thought long and hard about which body part he wanted to eat first, before finally settling on her buttocks. But, when he tried to bite into Renée, he realized his teeth were not sharp enough to pierce her skin. He went to a nearby store and purchased a hacksaw. When he returned, he began to slice into Renée’s right buttock. Once he got deep enough that he could see muscle, he ripped a piece of Renée’s flesh off using only his fingers and threw it into his mouth.
He later recounted in a book he wrote about the murder, “It melted in my mouth like raw tuna in a sushi restaurant.”
Issei ate Renée’s nose, nipples, breasts and several of her other body parts. Some of Renée’s bodyparts were eaten raw while others were cooked. Issei tried to bake one of her breasts in the oven but later stated it was too greasy. He then fried it and ate it with mustard. After each body part he consumed, Issei took photos of Renée’s body — at least what had remained of it. While he ate her body, Issei listened to the audio recording of Renée reciting his poem.
Issei filled his freezer with as much of Renée’s body parts as he could fit. He then stuffed the rest inside two suitcases and called a taxi. When the taxi driver helped Issei put the luggage in the trunk he mentioned how heavy they were and jokingly asked if there was a dead body inside.
Issei asked the taxi driver to take him to Bois de Boulogne, the second-largest park in Paris, located in the 16th arrondissement. Issei struggled to carry the two heavy suitcases containing Renée’s dismembered body. He had planned to throw the suitcases into the lake, but as he got nearer, a couple began staring at him suspiciously. Panicked, Issei left the two suitcases by a tree and fled. The couple opened the suitcase and peered inside only to discover a human arm. They phoned the authorities who tracked Issei back to his apartment.
When authorities knocked on his door four days later, Issei immediately confessed to murdering, dismembering and eating Renée. He told authorities he killed her to eat her flesh so he could absorb her energy. He was charged with murder and held in prison for two years to await trial. Issei was ultimately found unfit to stand trial and was sent to the Paul Guiraud Asylum. After Issei’s father intervened, he was deported back to Japan and admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo.
It was rumoured Issei’s father bribed several court and mental health officials to find his son unfit to stand trial to keep him out of prison.
Surprisingly, psychologists who examined Issei at the psychiatric hospital in Tokyo declared him sane. Despite admitting he killed Renée with the intention of eating her flesh to absorb her energy and become tall and beautiful like her, they claimed his only motive was a sexual perversion.
Since the French courts had already deemed Issei to be unfit to stand trial, they refused to provide Japanese officials with the paperwork regarding his criminal case and thus they were unable to press charges. In August of 1985, Issei checked himself out of the psychiatric hospital and became a free man.
Rather than imprisonment, Issei’s unique crime led him to fame and fortune. He was nicknamed the Japanese Cannibal Killer and wrote several bestselling novels recounting the murder. He wrote magazine columns, restaurant reviews, and even became a pornstar and an orator. Issei became even more well known after The Rolling Stones wrote a song about him titled ‘Too Much Blood.’
Those who didn’t view Issei as a celebrity were rightfully outraged, not only did he get away with murder, but was also profiting from it.
During an interview with Vice, Issei casually admitted he still had cannibalistic desires and would do it again, “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.” Issei also stated he didn’t understand why society is so anti-cannabilism.
In 2013, Issei suffered a cerebral infarction. He has required 24-hour assistance ever since. To this day, Issei maintains he regrets Renée’s death and claims he didn’t actually want to kill her, he only wanted to eat her, “If only she had let me taste her, just a little bit.”
Thankfully, Issei’s fame did not last long. Along with his notoriety came the inability for him to be unrecognizable. Everywhere he went, he was recognized as a murderer and a cannibal, preventing him from retaining employment, resulting in him becoming nearly destitute. According to Issei, it was the worst punishment he could have ever received.