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December 20, 2007

Born into the Japanese Mob

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It's drizzling as we walk through Sugamo's twisting backstreets to the cemetery, which is crammed between a jumble of low-rise homes. Wearing her baseball cap pulled low over her brow, Tendo lights some incense and prays at the cemetery's Buddhist shrine. Her father died in 1997; he never recovered from his spectacular business crash, or from the loss of his wife, who had passed away six years earlier.

Afterward, I ask Tendo what she said in her prayers. "I thanked them both for bringing me into the world and for making me who I am," she replies. "My father for making me tough and my mother for making me believe in myself."

Today, Tendo is a parent herself — her 22-month-old daughter, Komachi, is the result of a fling she had with a photographer after years of celibacy following her vow never to be with yakuza men. She chose to go ahead with the pregnancy alone, even though she knew that single mothers are another group of social outcasts in Japan. Does she like being controversial? "Actually, I'm writing my next book about being a single mother," she says, as we dodge the rain on the way back to the subway station. "I'm not trying to shock people. It's just that I think I'm much more broad-minded than most Japanese people, and that's probably one of the few positive effects of my yakuza upbringing." She hopes the book will show that single moms can be just as devoted to their kids as anyone else, noting, "Being Komachi's mom is definitely the best thing I've ever done."

Straphanging on a busy train on the way back to town, Tendo awkwardly hooks two fingers over her shirt cuff to stop it from slipping down her tattooed arm. "I don't even realize I'm doing it now," she says. When we get a seat, I ask her what she thinks the future holds. "I'm not sure. I haven't gotten everything together yet," she replies. "I'm still riddled with issues about my upbringing." Although she'd like to meet a "kind, decent" man to share her life with, taking care of her daughter is her biggest priority.

Given Tendo's own experiences, how will she protect her child if the little girl suffers any bullying because of her mom's background? "If anyone is cruel to my kid," she says with a sudden flash of ferocity, "I'll beat the living daylights out of them." Then, softening again, she adds that she'll never let it get to that stage. "I'm always going to be there for her, before anything bad happens."

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