My Pen Pal Was A Japanese Cannibal

In 1981, Issei Sagawa, a Japanese student in Paris killed and ate a fellow students. A French classmate stayed in touch with Sagawa, and now tries to make sense of the macabre.

Cannibal, noun: Someone who is fed up with people.
Cannibal, noun: Someone who is fed up with people.
David Caviglioli

PARIS - It was June 11, 1981, when Issei Sagawa, a Japanese student studying literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University, invited his friend Renee Hartevelt to dinner in his Parisian apartment.

He shot the 25-year-old Dutch exchange student in the neck with a 22-caliber Long Rifle, and then proceeded to eat her clitoris and cook several parts of her body. The “Japanese cannibal” was born.

French writer Nicole Caligaris was a fellow student at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and knew both the cannibal and his victim. Thirty years later, she has decided to write a book about this strange story.

Her book, “Paradise Between The Thighs,” isn’t an investigation, it’s a meditation: someone she barely knew ate someone else she barely knew. This staggering case is still something of a mystery to her.

To be true, she doesn’t have much to say on this weird case per se. She just goes where here words take her. She analyzes what the crime says about the 1980s, the media, her relationship to her own body, her own sex. It’s a delicate book on savagery, an illustration of how an intelligent mind can do faced with the incomprehensible – nothing, or not much.

NOUVEL OBSERVATEUR: Why wait 30 years to bring up the Issei Sagawa case again?
NICOLE CALIGARIS: It’s quite random, really. The editor François Angelier contacted me for his “Dictionary of the Assassins.” I told him that I couldn’t think of an assassin to write about, but then my partner reminded me that we had once known Issei Sagawa and that it was the right time to write about it. I had letters from him. I wanted there to be a trace of them.

At the time, how did you react when you heard what happened?
I saw in the newspaper. I was walking down the street and I saw the faces of two people I had spent an evening with not long ago. I guess I was flabbergasted. The truth is I don’t really remember how I felt. My reaction was to write to Issei Sagawa and that’s how we started our correspondence.

Why did you write to him? What was your letter about?
I don’t know any more. My guess is I asked him how he was. Today, I tell myself that with these letters, I was hinting at the beginnings of a career in literature. Maybe there was this idea that the story shouldn’t forgotten. But none of this was really conscious. I had the hardest time digging up these letters. I was glad I had blocked it all from my memory. Reading them for the second time was quite moving. Issei Sagawa’s language, his strange French. It’s very beautiful. I remember him guiding me in my discovery of Japanese literature, Kawabata for instance, I had forgotten about their sensitivity.

His letters are extremely naïve; he writes that “Renée was an extremely nice girl. I don’t know what happened at all.” You are publishing them in their entirety. What is their juridical status? Do you have the right to publish them?
He owns them. We tried to reach him, but we couldn’t find him. His Japanese editor never answered. We had a fax number, which never worked. As crazy as it sounds, I couldn’t even find him through social networks. I had prepared a letter. I wanted to see this through. I was nervous about meeting him again – terribly nervous.

You asked him to write for a literature magazine you work for.
I asked him to publish the text of his conference on Kawabata. This is what I can deduce from his response, since I had no memory of asking him this. I guess I was trying to find a way for him to stay alive. But, with hindsight, I can’t ignore what he’s become. The massive media coverage in which he was both actor and plaything.

This media coverage, did you know about it beforehand or did you learn about it while writing this book?
I knew he was free in Japan, that he was “playing” the cannibal on TV shows, cracking jokes about hamburgers out of human meat. But I didn’t pay attention to it until this book. It was too painful. I had been in contact with him, I felt manipulated.

I don’t have an opinion his willingness to show his face in the media. It’s a complex question. We can try to imagine ourselves in his place. What’s going to happen to him? He ruined everything: his relationships, his existence. However can he earn a living? In the end, there’s some kind of obligation. He had a choice, of course, we always have a choice. I know that he played in an erotic movie that I used to own, but never summoned enough courage to watch it. There are stills of it on the Internet, where he’s pretending to cut up a woman with a fork and a knife.

You emphasize your refusal to interpret his actions.
What’s the point? We can’t interpret anything and everything. It doesn’t teach us anything. All I can talk about is what I felt. An interpretation would mean that there was no one else but me. But there is in fact someone in front of me – someone I can’t understand. This incomprehension means the world to me.

When I analyze this act, I have to ignore all the stereotypes. I have to face this stupidity, which you can never get rid of, this tendency to psychological interpretation and moral prejudice. Of course I’m shocked but what's the point of being shocked by cannibalism?

Renee Hartevelt was eaten while you were out enjoying a nice evening with other fellow students. In your book, we sense a certain guilt.
I remember that evening, what was going on during the murder, but maybe that’s not what happened. It’s just what I always thought happened on that night. It’s probably the expression of my guilt. I didn’t see anything. Renee Hartevelt and Issei Sagawa were both foreign students in France. French students don’t really hang out with the foreign students; they prefer to have fun among themselves. I feel guilty for being stupid.

Sagawa was declared criminally irresponsible and freed in 1985. What was your reaction?
Everyone has an opinion on this sort of thing. Justice doesn’t punish. It brings those who have exiled themselves from humanity back to humanity. And we have to hold on to that. Him rotting in a prison cell wouldn’t render Renee Hartevelt’s death any less senseless. It’s painful to see him free, but that’s how things are. That’s how complicated things are.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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