The Japanese Cannibal: Issei Sagawa

Born in Japan in 1949 to a relatively wealthy family, Issei Sagawa had a fairly happy childhood; preferring his own company, he would spend hours reading. He was born premature and remained undersized all his life – as an adult standing around 5ft tall. Medically, his size caused some issues especially in childhood and his voice never broke. All of this meant he considered himself to be undesirable and not the kind of man women would typically look for, and became obsessed with finding the perfect woman. He specifically liked tall, white women.

Whilst at university in Japan, he followed a German tourist home and broke in. His goal was to cut off a piece of her flesh, take it home and eat it, leaving her otherwise unharmed. However, she woke up when he entered the room and called the police. Issei was initially charged with attempted rape, an allegation which pleased him due to its complete inaccuracy, but his father was able to pay off the victim and the charges were dropped.

Academically he did well, studying English Literature at Wako University in Japan and then moving to Paris in 1981 to study for a PhD. In Paris, “Almost every night I would bring a prostitute home and then try to shoot them from behind” (, but his finger froze on the trigger and the victims were lucky.

At the University of Paris, he met Renée Hartevel and very quickly developed an obsession with her physical appearance. Renée spoke three languages, including German, which Issei used to get close to her. Issei hired Renée to teach him German, paying her well for her time, and over a few months they developed a friendship. They would visit art galleries and have dinner together. Issei tried to introduce a sexual element into the mix, but Renée was firm that she only wanted a friendship.

One night, Issei invited her back to his apartment for dinner and to record her reading a German poem for him to study the pronunciation. When Renée’s back was turned, Issei shot her in the back of the neck. Considering his troubles committing murder before, it’s not surprising that he fainted after shooting Renée, his first successful murder. When he came to, Issei considered calling an ambulance but his desires were too strong and ultimately decided against it.

Issei had been having thoughts and desires about eating human flesh all his life, and at the age of 32 he finally succeeded. He ate some of the meat raw, and cut some to save for later. He was very curious as to what different parts of the human body would taste like, and found a particular liking for the forearm. The internal organs were also of interest, but he found the stomach acid stung his hand. Throughout the process of carving, Issei took photos. He experimented with different cooking techniques and accompaniments.

After two days the body started attracting flies and Issei knew the time to dispose of her remains had come. In preparation, he’d bought two suitcases and planned to throw them into a pond in the Bois de Boulogne park. Being a man of short stature, he struggled to carry both suitcases at once, which attracted some attention. In the end, he put them down and ran. The police were quickly called and the gruesome contents were found.

He returned home, and consumed another meal of Renée noting that the meat grew sweeter over time.

It only took police two days to find Issei and obtain a warrant for his arrest, partly due to the suitcases being a very new purchase. When they entered the apartment, they found human remains still in his fridge. Issei spoke very openly about what he’d done to the police, never once trying to deny the charges.

French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, declared him unfit to stand trial and called him delusional, claims that were backed up by the assessment of three doctors, and he was sent to Paul Guiraud asylum indefinitely as it was seen to be unlikely he would ever recover.

During his time inside, he was sent literature on other cannibals and “I realized I was not so unusual” ( As is often the case, he claims he learned how to potentially commit further crimes without getting caught. While in the asylum, Japanese author Inuhiko Yomota interviewed Issei, and published a book called In The Fog, the success of which helped Issei become a minor celebrity in Japan.

Again, his wealthy father stepped in, and in 1984 negotiated for Issei to be transferred to a Japanese asylum. Matsuzawa disagreed with the French doctors and declared him sane, believing he should be in prison. He had already been through the French justice system and they wouldn’t release the court documents and evidence to the Japanese government so no trial could be held against Issei, because of this he was released after less than a year and a half from the Japanese asylum.

For the murder of Renée Hartevel, Issei served five years before being re-entering society a free man. Issei continued to be very open about his crimes, giving interviews and writing on the subject. He is a published author, artist, columnist, restaurant reviewer among other things. He even tried his hand at writing a comic version of his story. On his website, he discusses how eating another human isn’t really all that bad, a common theme in all his communications. He has said “Frankly, I can’t fathom why everyone doesn’t feel this urge to eat, to consume, other people.” (

If he really did learn how to be more discrete with his crimes, it is unknown if any more people have fallen prey to his hunger. In an interview, he admitted “I do still harbor (sic) these desires, and I specifically want to eat a Japanese woman this time. ” (


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