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December 20, 2007

Born into the Japanese Mob

japanese woman with tattoos covering back and arms

Shoko Tendo's defiant tattoos stretch from her neck to her ankles.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

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Tendo has a personal style that's impossible to pin down. She doesn't stand out awkwardly, but she doesn't come close to the impeccable sartorial coordination of the Tokyoites around us. She wears a diamond-encrusted Hermès watch but carries a big, battered canvas satchel. Her hair is sharply cut, and her makeup is expertly applied, yet she hides it all under a baseball cap. "My appearance is like me: mixed up," she says. "I don't want to be part of the yakuza world anymore, but I'm not ready to join mainstream society. I still find it hard to trust people on either side."

Tendo was raised in a clandestine realm of violence and ill-begotten wealth. Descended from medieval gamblers and street peddlers, the yakuza came into full force during the U.S. occupation in postwar Japan, when demand for black-market goods escalated. For years they ran rackets in corporate extortion, real estate, and loan-sharking. In recent times, authorities have been cracking down, forcing the gangs to find sources of overseas income, such as sex-trafficking and weapons.

Given that Japan is generally one of the world's most law-abiding nations, the yakuza are especially sinister figures in the national psyche. For Tendo, laying bare her "sordid past" is her way of trying to reconcile her conflicting feelings about who she is. "I hate yakuza. I've seen all the ugly things they do," she says. "But I loved my dad, whatever his crimes. He raised me, and I have his yakuza blood."

Lowering her voice so a man with a glistening comb-over can't hear, Tendo tells me how her early life was dominated by her volatile father. He was the head of a gang allied with the largest yakuza syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi. She remembers discovering what a "big boss" he was: When she was 6, she opened the door to find a gangster dripping blood. He was clutching a box for her dad, which contained the finger he'd just hacked off his own hand. "The man was my dad's underling who'd done something wrong," she says. "Dad started hitting him. I couldn't believe my father was still angry with him, even though he'd cut off his finger to say sorry." Tendo hid behind her mom, but she'd seen enough to know that her dad, Yasuhiro Tendo, wielded a terrifying power.

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