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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.

June 28, 1992|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — 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.

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