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True crime. Casually done.

Issei Sagawa: The Kobe Cannibal

“Everyone deserves a second chance.”

I’d like to think this old cliche generally holds true when it comes to crime and punishment — one moment of madness doesn’t have to define a person’s entire existence. If you agree with me on that, then brace yourself: the subject of today’s episode will really test your faith in redemption.

This killer’s grotesque perversions and sick crimes will shock you, but it’s what came after that’s truly insane. Not only did Japanese society give him a second chance, they gave him a free pass. A free pass to milk his infamy for all it was worth, and create a horribly unsettling pop culture legacy, boasting about his cannibalistic crime without shame or repentance.

Get ready to jump down the rabbit hole into the psychology of a truly disturbed mind, as we explore the story of Issei Sagawa, the Kobe Cannibal…

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The Murder of Renee Hartevelt

On the 11th of June 1981, Renee Hartevelt set off from her Paris apartment, and took a cab towards the Rue Erlanger, just a little down the river from La Tour Eiffel. She was on her way to meet a classmate: a Japanese citizen also pursuing his literature PhD at the Sorbonne. Since they met about two weeks earlier, 25-year-old Dutchwoman Renee had been teaching him German.

It all started when he approached her after class, and introduced himself as Issei — Issei Sagawa. He invited her over to his apartment, to discuss poetry over dinner. Renee must have guessed that he had some ulterior motives but at 32 years old and 4’9” in height, he wasn’t exactly her romantic type.

She suspected that Sagawa might have a thing for her, but she had no idea the kinds of dark thoughts going through his head that night. The two shared some Japanese sukiyaki hotpot — but Sagawa was fantasizing about a very different meal throughout. He had singled Renee out not only because he wanted to sleep with her; he had the overwhelming urge to eat her. A picture. Of health and beauty, he dreamed that he would “absorb her energies” by doing so.

But best not to lead with that, it doesn’t make for very good first date chat. Instead, Sagawa used his dad’s sizable fortune so he’d have a reason to see her again; that’s when he offered her cash to be his German tutor. Over the following weeks, they met up regularly for lessons and meals at his apartment. 

After a few visits, Sagawa finally worked up the confidence to make a move. No, he didn’t bite the poor girl just yet — he made a pass at her. She told him she didn’t see him in that way, and their relationship continued on platonically. Renee had no reason to suspect she was in danger from this smitten little guy, when she arrived at his door on the 11th.

Sagawa invited her in, and the two hit the books, studying for an upcoming poetry assignment. Sagawa complimented Renee’s German-language recitations, and asked her to record some pieces into his tape machine, for him to practice against. So she took a seat at the dining table, and started reading into the mic.

While Renee was engrossed in the reading, Sagawa came up behind her with a 22 caliber rifle, and shot her in the back of the head. The bullet wasn’t powerful enough to punch an exit wound, and instead ricocheted off the inside of her skull.

She died instantly…

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After realizing the gravity of what he had just done, Sagawa considered calling an ambulance. In his own words: “Then I thought, ‘Hang on, don’t be stupid. You’ve been dreaming about this for 32 years and now it’s actually happening!’” 

The dream he’s referring to is the cannibalistic fantasy which plagued his thoughts since childhood. His infatuation with Renee was just the latest manifestation; when he spotted her bare skin in class, the urge to lean over and bite dominated his thoughts. He spent the nights that followed in a state of sick infatuation — caught between the desire to be with Renee, and the fantasy of eating her (for Sagawa, the two were usually one and the same).

But this was the first time he ever made his sick urges a reality. First he raped the body, then attempted to bite into the right buttock with his bare teeth. When he failed to break through the flesh, the fledgling cannibal grabbed a kitchen knife, and started cutting the body open. He later recounted: 

“No matter how deep I cut, all I saw was the fat beneath the skin. It looked like corn, and it took awhile to actually reach the red meat. The moment I saw the meat, I tore a chunk off with my fingers and threw it into my mouth. It was truly a historical moment for me.”

Over the next two days, Sagawa repeatedly raped and butchered the body, while listening to the recordings of the dead woman’s last minutes on his tape recorder. After the first bite, he moved down the leg, to the feet, and then took pieces from pretty much every other part of the body to sample. Most of the pieces he ate raw, but he also tried out frying a few pieces with seasoning. Others he put in the freezer for storage.

He’s given some extremely detailed play-by-play accounts over the years, but do any of you out there really want to hear a cannibal describe the systematic butchery of a woman, and the specific tastes and textures of each piece? If you answered “yes”, I sincerely hope we never meet. 

Now, I’ve seen and read some awful things while researching for this show — I honestly thought nothing could shake me at this point. Today however, I stumbled across a blog post featuring what I believe to be some of the autopsy pictures, showing exactly what Issei Sagawa did to his victim. 

That tab was closed sharpish — even I have my limits.

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After Sagawa finished his two-day binge, he decided to dispose of the remains. With a hatchet, he cut up the remainder of Renee’s body, wrapped the pieces in cloth, and stuffed them into a suitcase. He later recounted that, when he held up her head by the hair, the reality finally set in: “I realized I am a cannibal”

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A Dark Obsession

This was a dream over three decades in the making. Sagawa had dreamed of eating people from a young age. Born prematurely to wealthy parents in the seaside city of Kobe, in 1949, he was a sickly child with a severe inferiority complex. He described himself as having “legs like pencils”, and seemed to severely resent his short stature and unfortunate looks.

After learning about cannibalism from a fairytale, he began to have dreams that signaled the start of his lifelong obsession. He dreamt of he and his younger brother being boiled alive in a pot to be eaten. When little Issei awoke, he started fantasizing about what it might be like to be the chef in the story, rather than an ingredient. 

In the first grade of elementary school, these fantasies started spilling out into the real world. Sitting in class one summer’s day, he recounts seeing “the quivering meat on a male classmate’s thighs, and I suddenly thought, “Mmm, that looks delicious.” But I’m not homosexual…”

Nice thighs bro — no homo. Once he started puberty, Issei’s cannibalistic urges became increasingly tangled with his sex drive. This reached new heights in junior high when he went with his family to see a film starring Grace Kelly. In her, he discovered the ideal match/meal: white women with blonde hair and blue eyes. 

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In 1972, Sagawa was studying literature at Wako University in Tokyo. While there, he took classes in German, probably to help chat up all those aryan beauties he was dreaming of. Up until now he had kept his unorthodox preferences under wraps, but living on his own for the first time, the urges cared to manifest.

One day that summer, he spotted a tall German woman walking down the street, and decided it was time to strike. He followed the woman to her apartment, waited a while, then slipped in through her window. He found her lying asleep.

How in the hell did he plan to do that exactly? Well, the littlest cannibal had no idea what to do next. He hadn’t really planned this far in advance. Sagawa scanned around the room to find a weapon — anything that might be good for a bit of slicing and dicing. Eventually he settled on… an umbrella.

Before he could grab his weapon of choice, the woman woke up and screamed. She pushed him to the ground, and he ran off out of the apartment. The police eventually managed to track him down, and hit him with an attempted rape charge — he never let on that he planned on doing far more than that. 

Sagawa claims that his only intention was to cut off some pieces of the woman, and sneak off without disturbing her. Surely he’s not stupid enough to think that was possible. Whether he intended to kill the woman or just snatch an innocent little snack, he was lucky to only land an attempted rape charge. 

And even more lucky to dodge any prison time for this incident. That’s because consequences are for poor people. The cannibal’s big-businessman father managed to pay off the victim, promising to send his son to therapy as part of the deal. 

This therapist was the first to ever hear Sagawa voice his sick desires out loud, and sought to have him categorized as a high risk individual. But once again Sagawa Senior swooped in. Rather than endure the shame of his son being outed as a cannibal, he engineered his exile to France, where he would continue his studies. 

At 28 years old, Issei Sagawa set off for Paris with a clean slate, and a second chance at eating human flesh…

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His close call with justice might have dulled his urges for a while, but soon enough Sagawa was back at it. In Paris, he made a habit of bringing prostitutes back to his apartment. Wielding the same small-calibre rifle with which he later killed Renee, he aimed at the back of their heads, but was never able to fire: 

“Rather than morals and whatnot, it was instinct that stopped my hand from moving. Somewhere in my mind I knew that I, and the world that I lived in, would shatter to pieces the moment I pulled that trigger.”

It would be years before he could bring himself to follow through with it. When he began taking poetry classes in the summer of ’81, he finally found the perfect victim. Renee was tall, blonde, and blue-eyed — the little cannibal was instantly infatuated. Not only was she physically perfect, but unlike the French women he had grown accustomed to, she was willing to show him the time of day.

He maintains to this day that his friendship with Renee was genuine, and that killing her wasn’t necessarily part of the plan. In fact, he even claims that a glass of certain bodily fluids or a nibble on some pubic hair might have been enough to sate his desires, but he was too afraid to ask. He was worried she might be disgusted — probably a good call. When it became clear that the only was to consume his sweetheart was to end her life, he resolved to kill her: 

“What I truly wished was to eat her living flesh. Nobody believes me, but my ultimate intention was to eat her, not necessarily to kill her[…] But I came to the realization that in order to eat her, I had to kill her.”

The night that Renee rejected him, he stood behind her with the gun.  But again he was unable to go through with it. Night after night he did the same thing, before finally bucking up the courage. He stood directly behind her, and aimed the rifle at the back of her head, and pulled the trigger. It misfired. 

Sagawa panicked, and hid the gun before his victim could turn around. This little embarrassment only made him more determined: “more hysterical and I knew that I simply had to kill her.” Several days later, he invited her over again and… well, you know what happened next.

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When we last left Issei, he was stuffing the pieces of Renee into two suitcases. After that, he hailed a taxi out front of his apartment. He rode it to the Bois de Boulogne park, just a few minutes down the road. 

The plan was to drop the bags into a small lake, hidden from prying eyes. But that was easier said than done: a fully-grown adult human is pretty damn heavy, even if you trim off some pieces. Sagawa struggled to drag the suitcases through the park, drawing the attention of dozens of passers-by. 

To make matters worse, the bottom of the suitcases were now sodden with blood, dripping down onto the path. The cannibal panicked, knowing it was only a matter of time before he was found out. He quickly dumped the bags behind a bush, and ran home. 

His plan was to enjoy as much of the frozen meat as possible before his inevitable capture…

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I’m sure one description of a Sagawa human buffet is more than enough for today. Instead, how about his justifications? For most of us, cannibalism is pretty unthinkable, but to him it felt completely natural. This quote from a 2009 Vice magazine interview sums it up (a contender for worst Tinder bio imaginable): 

“It’s simply a fetish. For example, if a normal man fancied a girl, he’d naturally feel a desire to see her as often as possible, to be close to her, to smell her and kiss her, right? To me, eating is just an extension of that. Frankly, I can’t fathom why everyone doesn’t feel this urge to eat, to consume, other people.”

Oh, so we’re the weird ones. I see. 

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Clean Slate

After all those years of craving human flesh, Sagawa finally realized his dream. But the reality was proving to be a little more troublesome than he ever imagined. Cut back to him dumping those blood-soaked suitcases in the park, and you might imagine that justice was finally about to catch up with him. Well, yes and no…

The police raided Sagawa’s apartment two days after the bodies at the park were found. The anxiety must have spoiled the cannibal’s appetite, because the cops found many pieces of human flesh still in the freezer when they arrived. By way of an explanation, the Kobe Cannibal simply said “I killed her to eat her flesh.”

He was arrested there and then. In his pre-trial hearings, Sagawa spoke candidly about the sick details of his crime, without emotion. For two years the Kobe Cannibal waited for his trial, but it never came. The judge, shaken by his sick indifference, eventually declared the deviant unfit to stand trial. 

Instead, he was committed to Paul Guiraud Asylum indefinitely. 

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But that wasn’t the end of the line for this killer; as I said before, only the poor have to face the consequences of their actions. Sagawa’s father once again came to his rescue, negotiating a deal with the French to have his son transferred to an asylum in Japan instead. So in 1984, he returned home.

Keeping the man-eating francophile in captivity proved to be tougher than the Japanese authorities had hoped. In order to keep him indefinitely, they required the court documents from France in order to launch fresh charges on home soil. The problem was that French courts procedures stated that records had to be sealed whenever charges were dropped, so they refused to provide them.

This meant that the Japanese had no legal recourse in detaining Sagawa. Whether or not he stayed locked up was now a purely medical matter.Eventually Sagawa Senior was able to employ the help of a psychiatrist to judge his son cured, and his cannibalistic offspring was allowed to check himself out of hospital after just 15 months. 

Five years after killing, violating, eating, and dismembering a woman, he was a free man…

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Superstar Cannibal

You’d think that his reputation as a criminal and cannibal would be enough to turn Sagawa into a social outcast, but what came next is the most insane part of his story by far. We have quite a lot of direct quotes from the cannibal to base our story on today. That’s because he has always been happy to gleefully recount his experiences whenever a reporter comes knocking.

Picture Of Issei Sagawa

Even while he was being flown from Paris to Tokyo, he was accompanied by a journalist. After rejoining society, the Japanese media indulged him time and time again, giving him a platform that can only be described as downright despicable. He wasn’t just some cult figure either; Sagawa had paid appearances with some of the biggest publications and networks in the country. 

Following his 1986 release, Sagawa became a familiar face on daytime TV. Sometimes he appeared on talk shows, on which he laid out his horrific crimes without shame or repentance. Other times he showed up on magazine shows, where he was invited like any other guest to comment on the news of the day. He was even invited onto a daytime cooking show, to give his opinion on meat dishes! No, I am not making this up. 

The BBC gets 500 complaints if someone says “fuck” on TV before 9pm. How the hell were everyday Japanese people fine seeing a self-confessed cannibal on their screens every other week? He wasn’t outright condemned or challenged by the media. In fact, he usually just kind of… showed up and hung out. 

The lone voice of the cannibal acceptance movement, he sometimes used his platforms to argue that eating people isn’t really a big deal. There are hundreds of grotesque quotes from across the years, like: “If people found out the truth, I’m sure that men would all start eating women.” 

It wasn’t just the broadcasting houses that indulged him either. Between TV gigs, Sagawa made most of his money as a public speaker and writer. He landed a job as a sushi critic for Spa Magazine. This is the same man who once said that the flesh of an actual human woman “melted in my mouth like raw tuna”.

Somehow he also managed to find a publisher for 20 different books, including a tell-all memoir; a true crime book on the 1997 Kobe Child Murders; and a fucking manga about Renee’s murder. Imagine your daughter was cruelly taken from you, and the killer was allowed to turn her death into a goddamn comic book.

His most recent work is a collection of erotic sketches and articles entitled Extremely Intimate Fantasies of Beautiful Girls. When it was released, he told the press “I hope that people who read it will at least stop thinking of me as a monster.”

That ship sailed long ago, Sagawa-san.

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What the fuck, Japan?

Oh, I almost forgot. If the cooking shows and comic books made you feel a bit sick, I’ve got one last treat for you. Back in the early nineties, some unscrupulous adult film producers thought it would be a good idea to cast the Kobe Cannibal in their softcore sexploitation films. 

Not only that, his main role was to bite into the skin of the actresses. Once again. I am not making this up. Japanese men actually paid money for VHS tapes of a self-confessed murder-cannibal biting women!

To make matters worse, one of the actresses reported that she was never informed in advance who her co-star was going to be. She only found out after filming the scene that the man she was cast alongside was genuinely fantasizing about eating her the whole time. 

I expected more of the porn industry — they’re normally so ethical…

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Just like that, the Kobe Cannibal (or the Paris Cannibal, as some in Japan refer to him) dodged prison and turned into a minor public figure, making a decent living by repeatedly describing how he happily devoured a young woman. I can’t even imagine what that kind of injustice did to Renee’s family. 

How in the hell was a man like his given so much airtime throughout the eighties and nineties? Some have speculated that, back when Japan’s economy peaked, the TV stations had massive budgets, and were in fierce competition for ratings. Slapping a cannibal on a cooking show was a surefire way to get some shock value. 

Meanwhile, the publishers and producers managed to sleep at night by reminding themselves that the guy never actually had a criminal record, so it wasn’t really unethical to feature him. Likewise, the viewers were happy to sweep the ethical questions under the rug, since the object of their morbid fascination was only a gleeful, self-admitted cannibal, not a convicted one. Make of that what you will.

Since the late nineties, that attention has mostly dried up. The Kobe Cannibal is living out his life relatively quietly, in a small apartment in Kawasaki — just across the Tama River from Tokyo. He mostly survives off the inheritance gained from his father, whose funeral he was banned from attending. After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in 2013, he now requires daily care from his brother Jun.

Sagawa still receives the odd few minutes in the limelight every few years or so, whenever Vice magazine or the like need some shock value fodder. In one interview with them from around a decade ago, he told them that he feels he has been punished for his crimes: living life as a known murderer was payment enough.

Considering you’re not still rotting in a French prison, I’d say you probably did alright my man…

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Wrap-up: Once a Cannibal, Always a Cannibal

So that’s how the Kobe Cannibal gained his name, and rode his infamy to a life of TV appearances and book deals. No once throughout any of that did he express any genuine remorse for what he did. Even worse: he claims that he wants to do it again — he can’t imagine dying without trying human flesh just one last time. Back in 2009, he told Vice:

“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. […] I think either sukiyaki or shabu shabu is the best way to go, in order to really savor the natural flavor of the meat.” 

I spent about 12 months living in Kawasaki a little while back. Perhaps the Kobe Cannibal has eyed my ‘derriere’ at some point too. I’ll admit I’m no Grace Kelly, but I’m not bad either. But it looks like he might have missed his chance to take a bite. 

Now 72 years old, Sagawa recently had gastronomic surgery, and has to be fed through a tube installed directly into his stomach. 

I suppose I pop a few tidbits in, if the price is right…

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Dismembered Appendices 

1. Sagawa’s fame wasn’t just restricted to his homeland. He gets mention in a Rolling Stones song from 1983 called Too Much Blood: “And when he ate her he took her bones to the Bois de Boulogne”. He’s also been the subject of multiple European and American documentaries, most notably 2017’s Caniba.

2. It seems like the whole Sagawa family might have been a little unhinged. Issei’s younger brother Jun has his own strange predilection. In the documentary Caniba, he reveals he enjoys self-harm with barbed wire and tools. What the hell happened in the Sagawa household?

3. Sagawa maintains his fascination for European culture to this day. In the 2000s, he almost landed a job at a French language school in Tokyo. The manager was impressed at his brass balls for using his real name, but was ultimately pressured to reject him by the other staff. Amazingly though, the Japanese authorities were less discerning: they issued Sagawa with a passport… to travel to Germany…

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