Japan’s Most Famous Cannibal The crime of Issei Sagawa

    Not every celebrity is a movie star or a singer. Sometimes fame comes from more unexpected places.

    In Issei Sagawa’s case, he became famous from eating another person. Yes, you read that right — Sagawa is a cannibal, and openly admits to it.

    And yet, he lives a free life in Japan, and has even been interviewed on TV programs and has published a few minorly successful books.

    How did this happen? How is Sagawa not behind bars?!

    The Crime

    Sagawa has said that he’s had the urge to eat somebody since he was young — not your typical childhood. But it wasn’t until he was attending graduate school in France that he go to fulfill his twisted fantasy.

    issei sagawa in a red velvet smoking jacket sitting in a living room

    While in France, he invited one of his classmates over to his apartment to study. While she was there, Sagawa shot and killed her, and over the following days, slowly ate her body. After a while, he decided to try and get rid of (what remained of) the body. He was caught, and arrested by the police.

    How He Got Away With It

    The law becomes a bit murky once it crosses international boundaries. In France, authorities found Sagawa to be medically insane, meaning that he couldn’t stand trial there. So Sagawa returned back to Japan where Japanese officials attempted to try him for murder.

    But the French refused to give up any evidence for the case, saying that the case was closed as far as they were concerned. Even more bizarre, Japan’s own psychologists somehow found Sagawa sane.

    Through this series of unexpected twists and turns, Sagawa ended up scot-free. Nobody (including Sagawa himself) could deny that he had killed and eaten another human being but legally, there was nothing to do about it.

    The Most Famous Cannibal

    As Sagawa returned to Japan, he found that he had become a minor celebrity in Japan. For years following his return, he wrote books about his crime, was a popular interview subject and even restaurant critic.

    Maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising. I mean, people became incredibly fascinated with OJ Simpson after he was accused of killing his wife. I can only imagine that a killer like Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer would receive an enormous amount of attention is they were out of jail.

    In recent years though, it seems that Sagawa’s past has caught up with him in a big way. After his blip of fame right after the initial killing, people lost interest with the free cannibal and began to treat him more like a criminal.

    issei sagawa sitting on a couch holding his cannibal book

    Sagawa says that after his spurt of fame in the 80s and 90s, he’s had problems finding work and holding down a job. His infamy has been working against him, as Sagawa’s name alone is often enough to get him disqualified from a job.

    It’s not very surprising that people are beginning to shun Sagawa considering, y’know, the guy ate somebody, and to this day admits to cannibalistic fantasies. I still get queasy just reading about Sagawa, even though I’ve been aware of him for years.

    But with every passing year, his crime fades into memory and he falls further into obscurity and I take some comfort in knowing that while he wasn’t legally punished, the social pressures are enforcing at least one type of justice. As he said in his Vice interview:

    If you’re out in society, you have to somehow make a living and find a place to stay. What harsher punishment can there be? It’s brutal.