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December 20, 2007

Born into the Japanese Mob

tattooed japanese woman in taxi

Tendo in a Tokyo taxi. She jokes that her gangster tattoos come in handy when she wants to cut through traffic. "I just dangle my elbow out the car window, and the road clears."

Photo Credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

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Her teen years were equally tough, she says, with what seems to be a genuine lack of self-pity. Bullied for being a "yakuza kid," she dropped out of school to join a gang. "Society didn't accept us anyway, so what did we have to lose?" she says. "That's how I felt." Her world fell apart completely at age 16, when her dad's construction and real-estate business collapsed, leaving him in astronomical debt. Gangland creditors seized the house and threw the family onto the streets.

As Tendo sips her coffee, I'm surprised that no one recognizes her, but she has a way of hunching quietly in her chair that renders her inconspicuous. With a sigh, she continues her story, explaining that once she was no longer protected by her father's power, she fell prey to a string of yakuza lowlifes attracted to her young body. She spent years holed up in "love hotels" — seedy, neon-lit places where rooms are rented by the hour — waiting for lovers to deliver her fixes. "When I wasn't having sex or doing drugs with those men, I'd be listening to them boast about who they hurt that day," she says, adding that they were violent toward her, too. "They always used the excuse that they thought I was cheating on them to beat me up." At one point, her face was so badly damaged that she required surgery. Today, her face is so flawless, it's almost too perfect.

Tendo is not an easy woman to size up. Especially, I realize, when she starts talking about her decision, in her early 20s, to get a yakuza irezumi, or full-body tattoo. "It was after one particularly bad beating that I knew I had to do something drastic," she says. "So I came off drugs, resolved never to go out with yakuza men again, and went to the tattoo parlor." In yakuza tradition, tattoos symbolize membership to a clan, and also, as they take more than 100 hours to complete, the ability to withstand pain. Since Tendo couldn't escape her origins merely by running away, she decided to make the boldest statement she could about who she was. She saw it as empowering, a way to "acknowledge my DNA, to give the finger to yakuza men, and to take control of my life."

The suburb of Sugamo, in northern Tokyo, doesn't boast anything like a Café de Paris, but it does have a pachinko parlor called Club New York. Pachinko is a kind of Japanese pinball and a major national addiction. Tendo worked 16-hour days at the club amid the kaleidoscopic clamor in her mid-20s, when she was trying to become independent. She shows me the place with a cursory wave as we come out of the subway station, but it's not why she has come here. She visits Sugamo every month for a different reason: Her mother and father are buried in a nearby cemetery.

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