Seeing Japan ‘Through the Eyes of a Cannibal’ : Celebrity: Confessed killer is free--even popular. His story tells of a country’s morbid fascination with sexual perversion and death.


Issei Sagawa murdered a Dutch woman friend in Paris, cut up her body and ate parts of it 11 years ago. Today, instead of being punished for his crime, he has become a minor celebrity here.

Sagawa has written four books. He is the author of a weekly column in a widely circulated tabloid and appears on television. He has shown up in compromising poses in pornographic magazines. Some journalists and literati have written favorably about his work; they call him Sagawa - kun , addressing him with a term of endearment reserved for children or young friends.

“The public has made me the godfather of cannibalism, and I am happy about that,” Sagawa wrote recently. “I will always look at the world through the eyes of a cannibal.”


Indeed, there are indications that Sagawa again is following a perverse modus operandi, paying what some experts consider to be an alarming amount of attention to young, Caucasian women here.

So why is a confessed killer allowed to wander the streets of Tokyo, much less to bask in so much twisted public attention? The strange tale of how soft-spoken Issei Sagawa came to be free speaks not only about Japan’s flawed approach to dealing with mentally disturbed criminals. It also tells of the morbid fascination of Japanese media and society with sexual perversion, pain and death.

Although sex crimes are still rare here--Japan, with half the population of the United States, has only about one-sixtieth the number of reported rapes--some observers worry that the widespread availability of videotapes, comic books and articles graphically depicting cruel scenes of rape and sadism will provoke an increase in sexual violence here.

“The incidence of sadism can easily grow if the environment is bad,” said Akio Yamagami, a professor of criminal psychiatry at Tokyo Medical and Dental University.

To be sure, Yamagami said, the West has its own peculiar fascination with bizarre criminals, witness the attention paid to the cannibal character Hannibal Lecter in the movie “Silence of the Lambs,” for which Anthony Hopkins won an Academy Award. But in Japan, the Sagawa case is “a real embarrassment,” he said. “We all feel bitter about (his freedom), but nobody has a right to restrain him unless he does something again.”

Five-foot-tall Sagawa, 43, looked harmless enough when he showed up for a recent interview. He wore sunglasses to “hide his eyes from the media,” he explained. And to play up his self-styled image as an intellectual, he had donned a white turtleneck and a tweed jacket.


Discussing his cannibalism, Sagawa said the criminal behavior was the product of long incubation. At age 3, he said, he dreamed of being cooked with his brother; he recalled “Sleeping Beauty” as a fairy tale about a cannibal witch. He was only an elementary school child when he began asking his elders why it is wrong to eat human flesh.

Sagawa grew testy when asked how people react to his being free. He said his personal affairs are “nobody else’s business” and noted that he does, indeed, face personal restrictions because of his past. The embarrassed Foreign Ministry, for example, tried to bar his overseas travel by refusing him a passport.

Sagawa, though, hired a lawyer, and when German public television invited him to appear on a live broadcast, he was allowed to go. He wants to visit the United States and is indignant that “a free country like America” has continued to refuse him a visa.

Sagawa said that editors and publishers in Japan, far from encouraging him to seek treatment for his behavior, have urged him at every turn to indulge and exaggerate his worst impulses. He insisted that his lurid statements in print about cannibalism were just “jests” to titillate readers.

But anyone who knows his history would find little humor in the ramblings of this onetime would-be scholar. Sagawa was a 23-year-old student when arrested for attempted rape after he crawled into the second-story window of a German woman he admired in Tokyo. His wealthy father settled the matter by paying the woman a large amount of cash.

Sagawa returned to his studies but never passed the entrance examination for a prestigious Japanese university. He chose, instead, to go to Paris to study language and literature.

There, after spending almost four years studying and writing articles for Japanese intellectual magazines, he met Renee Hartevelt, a 25-year-old Dutch student. He began paying her to visit his small apartment to teach him German and to tape-record German poems.

Then, in the summer of 1981, he recalled that he experienced a “desire . . . so strong I could not resist it.” He bought a gun and a silencer. He fatally shot Hartevelt, then cut up her body, refrigerated parts and planned to dump the rest in a park. He was arrested and jailed in France before his transfer to a mental institution, where he was pronounced brain-damaged and unfit to stand trial.

During his jail and hospital time, he embarked on his life as a minor Japanese celebrity. Some literati wrote him; they sent him books on cannibalism to encourage him to tell his story. “I felt better after reading those books because I realized I was not so unusual,” he said.

Sagawa’s letters to novelist Juro Kara were compiled in “Letters from Sagawa-kun,” a book that won for Kara the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary award for a new writer. In the meantime, Sagawa’s first book, “In the Mist”--what he calls a “fictionalized” account of his crime--sold 200,000 copies.

Certainly, Sagawa’s case in some ways parallels that of Jack Henry Abbott, the American criminal and author freed with Norman Mailer’s help after writing “In the Belly of the Beast.” But if Abbott--who was jailed anew after his involvement in a killing--was praised for offering insights into the criminal mind, Sagawa appears to have won attention here simply because his horrible tale had a twisted appeal to many Japanese.

Sagawa’s case also exposed a glaring weakness in the Japanese judicial system.

In 1984, the French allowed Sagawa to be transferred to a Japanese hospital. There, psychiatrists concluded that he had a “personality disorder” but not the brain damage that French authorities said he had manifested. The Japanese said he belonged in jail, not in a hospital. But French police insisted that the case against him was closed; they refused to provide Japanese police with materials needed to bring new charges against Sagawa, a National Police Agency spokesman said.

Sagawa was put in his parents’ custody after undergoing just 15 months of observation.

Yamagami, the criminal psychiatry professor, said that part of the foul-up in Sagawa’s case stemmed from its psychosexual nature. “The Japanese justice system,” he explained, “does not regard a sexual disorder as a mental illness,” requiring treatment or detention.

And even if Sagawa were found to be mentally ill, the hospital would not have kept him for long, Yamagami said. That’s because hospitals confine mentally ill criminals with other mental patients; hospitals so dread dealing with criminals that they tend to release them quickly.

As for Sagawa, he said he received no treatment in the Japanese hospital.

Saying he fainted when he had his blood drawn at a hospital, Sagawa insisted that he will never kill again: “It is impossible; I have the fantasies, but to kill is horrible--it is different from fantasy.”

Although some worry about Sagawa’s pandering to a public all too receptive to his lurid tales, some intellectuals suggest that Sagawa’s case represents simply a healthy exploration of the dark side of Japanese culture.

“Until a few years ago, negative stories were rejected, everything was like the American way of consumer life where you show everything as bright and happy,” said author Shinobu Yoshioka. “Sagawa-kun’s problem showed a different view of culture. There are many cruel elements in traditional Japanese literature such as devils and monsters, but our postwar culture rejected it.”

Yoshioka said the demand for a literature of the perverse grows out of Japan’s smothering, restrictive educational and corporate system, which builds “a sense of powerlessness in the society.”

Sagawa said he wants to lead a new life unrelated to his “incident.” But when he tries to get jobs under pseudonyms, his fellow workers find out about his past and he is fired.

Sagawa has told many different audiences that he sees his personal salvation coming about only through another act of cannibalism--with himself as the victim of a young woman.

“That is the only way I can be saved,” he said, expressing weariness and wariness that his crime and public status have now made it impossible for him to distinguish between his true self and his media-created image.

“It is like I have no self left--I’m just a shell,” he said. “I’m acting like what people imagine me to be.”

Megumi Shimizu, an editorial assistant in The Times’ Tokyo bureau, contributed to this report.