Yakuza gang boss's daughter tells tale of gritty triumph "Yakuza Moon" -- Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter (courtesy of Kodansha International)
"Yakuza Moon" is a shocking story of the side of Japan most Japanese would prefer the rest of the world never knew about.
But thanks to Kodansha International, yakuza gang boss's daughter Shoko Tendo's best-selling autobiography is now out in English and accessible to a wider audience.
Tendo has a gut-wrenching tale that drags the reader with her down into the depths of misery brought on by abuse and addiction and then back up again as self-confidence raises her to the heights of her chosen profession as a bar hostess and onward to further challenges.
"I'm thoroughly honored and left speechless with joy that my book has been translated into English. But, there was nothing special about my experiences, they were all worries and problems that just about anybody can go through. I was born a yakuza's daughter and raised in a yakuza lifestyle (with yakuza philosophies). This could sometimes be painful and a burden. But my father, a yakuza living on the fringes of society, told it to me straight -- no matter how poor you are, sometimes there are things in this world that money just can't buy. I think what my father said to me on his deathbed -- 'Shoko, believe in yourself' -- said it all," Tendo told the Mainichi Daily News in an e-mail interview.
"And you should never stop dreaming. You should keep after them until they come true. Then, they stop being dreams and become reality. I had no formal education, but dreamed of being a writer from the time I was small and I eventually became a writer, a fact I believe was possible because of my father's teaching. I'm glad that I was plucked into this world as the daughter of a yakuza father and the woman who silently supported that father from the shadows, and I feel proud about that. Now my book is in English, I would be delighted if it were able to help those suffering from the same worries I had to go through to take even a single step forward."
"Yakuza Moon" tracks 38-year-old Osaka-born Tendo's life from her early years where her status as a yakuza gang boss's daughter started her roller-coaster ride through luxury, bullying, discrimination, domestic violence and reform school. It moves on to her time as a teen biker gang moll sucking on first paint thinner and then shooting up speed, a substance that later become an addiction fostered by one of the many brutal thugs she shares her life with in early adulthood.
More vicious beatings, exploitation by infidel men, rape, miscarriage and heartbreak follow. Reconciliation with her parents is tempered by grief at their deaths. Mental illness and a suicide attempt add to the already bleak picture. But as "Yakuza Moon" is written with such candor and huge investment of emotion, it's impossible to desert Tendo and put her book down. Shoko Tendo (courtesy of Kodansha International)
Fortunately, inner strength, the support of friends, family and the Jigoku Dayu -- a traditional courtesan tattoo Tendo has etched on her back that seems to empower her -- combine to help the yakuza's daughter rip-start her life anew.
Tendo's Japan is a far cry from the Japan National Tourist Organization-like brochure images of dark-suited salarymen corporate warriors, flamboyant kabuki actors or dainty, demure, kimono-clad beauties performing flower arrangements and tea ceremonies. Instead, it's a warts-and-all story of the gritty triumph of a -- perhaps unconsciously -- powerful woman that should not be missed by anybody interested in learning about a rarely seen side of Japan. It's certainly not a side of this country many Japanese would like outsiders to see, but one they obviously wanted a glimpse of themselves, judging by the 11 printings "Yakuza Moon" has undergone in Japanese since its release in 2004.
Special mention should also go to Louise Heal, whose English translation is outstanding, especially with the dialogue, which comes as close as possible to recreating Tendo's native Kansai dialect.
Tendo's "Yakuza Moon" is one that shines brilliantly whatever the time of day. (By Ryann Connell)
"Yakuza Moon" -- Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter
English translation by Louise Heal
Published by Kodansha International
April 1, 2007
After years of eclipse, Yakuza Moon author sees the light
One of the first things that catch the eye about Shoko Tendo is how tiny and fragile she looks. It's scary to shake hands for fear that her arm may snap off.
But making up the wiry frame of this writer and daughter of a yakuza gang boss is a will of cast iron that has helped her overcome a life so dramatic even the most imaginative of soap opera scriptwriters would struggle to dream it up.
Tendo has gone through all sorts of abuse -- physical, mental, substance, sexual and self -- to emerge as a caring, constructive member of society.
"Normally, I'm unreliable, but if there's something I want to do, or want to become, I don't give up until I get it. Put it nastily, I'm pesky. Put it nicely, I'm an optimist," Tendo tells the Mainichi during an interview at a Tokyo hotel.
Tendo, 39, is the author of "Yakuza Moon," an autobiography that details a life filled with drama. As a child, she suffered from her father's alcohol fueled rages and bullying at school. Her teens were a series of artificial highs as she started sniffing paint thinner, ended with a dependency on speed and had a stint in reform school in between.
"While addicted to drugs, I constantly thought I was a really awful person. I asked myself why I was doing it, why I didn't quit. I was filled with shame and just wanted to quit. I was filled with guilt," she says. "What saved me was that if I got done for drugs, everyone would know it. Even though I was still only a juvenile and my name wouldn't be printed in the papers, I thought that if I got busted, we were living in the countryside and everybody would know about it and my little sister would get bullied at school."
Tendo's teens also saw her begin a series of relationships with vicious men, nearly all of them with ties to the yakuza. She was in a downward spiral of abuse, being drugged, raped and occasionally battered to the extent she needed hospitalization. Eventually, she would have to get her face nearly entirely reconstructed to cover the scars of one particularly brutal attack.
"Now, I cannot handle a guy who lays hands on a woman. I hate violent types," she says. "I've seen so much bad about the yakuza and, in a way, I hate the yakuza. But, on the other hand, I like my dad and others who showed ninkyo (consideration for others). But other yakuza, I hate."
Tendo shows considerable ninkyo herself. She unconditionally handed over to her ex-husband the royalties from her best-selling autobiography simply because his company was failing and his health ailing. Tendo says her generosity came about because when she needed money to buy her deceased parents a grave, her ex-husband had given it to her, no questions asked.
"Money is better if it's given to someone who needs it rather than being all tight-fisted. It's kind of like the money is alive," she says. "There's so much I want, but for some reason, if somebody around me is really struggling, I give them everything I have. There's nothing left for me though. And I do that over and over again. I always have this feeling that unless I do something, somebody will suffer. I feel an obligation to help the weak. I don't do it to be loved. For me, money is either something to be used, or there to help people who need help."
Tendo says her gang boss father inspired her attitude toward money.
"We'd watch TV and see people come on dripping with gold and jewels that made them look rich, but Dad said these people weren't rich. He used to say that these people looked lecherous. You could see the sheer greed in their face. He said people who became like that were crude. They only think of themselves. They have no value as people. They have no sense of beauty. And I started to think the same way," she says.
When in trouble, her father's style of tough love was to leave his daughter to fix problems she had created for herself. After finally emerging from her drug addiction, she began carving a successful career as a nightclub hostess.
"The good part of hostessing was the money. The worst part was seeing so much of the filthy, indecent side of people. Women bullying, abusing each other. Envy, jealousy. And there were loads of awful customers. A lot of them mistakenly think that just because you're a hostess, you'll fuck them. They made some outrageously lecherous demands of you. It is incredibly demanding. On a daily basis," she says. "It's also mentally demanding. You have to study a lot to be able to maintain a conversation, because if you can't be fun, the customers won't ask for you anymore. And under no circumstances whatsoever can you ever be rude to a customer, you always have to speak politely to them. And even though there's absolutely no chance you'll ever have a fling with them, you've got to send them a message implying that you might be up to it or they'll lose interest."
One of the forces that propelled Tendo back on track was a dramatic one -- she got a traditional Japanese-style irezumi tattoo of a feudal era courtesan etched onto most of her body. The full-body work stretches from her forearms to her shins, separated only by the wareme, the open patch of bare skin between her breasts.
It was after she got the irezumi in her mid-20s that Tendo seemed to find a previously untapped inner strength. By her late 20s, she was the top hostess in her club and sufficiently independent financially to become a writer in her 30s.
Tendo was also prompted to become a tattoo artist in her own right, but put that ambition on hold last year to concentrate on writing full time. Despite the inspiration her irezumi has provided, Tendo says the work remains a mostly intimate object.
"I normally never show my irezumi or wear anything that shows it off. Young people show off their tattoos as fashion, but I absolutely refuse to show them off. It's something I regard as manners. If ordinary people find something sinister in my irezumi, I make sure I don't show it to them. My irezumi are for my satisfaction so there's no need to flash it off to all and sundry," she says. "I'll show it for work, or events, but that's different. That's for those places. But I don't go out and show it off just for the sake of it."
Having blanketed a large majority of her body area with the irezumi, there can be some uncomfortable moments.
"I don't regret a thing about my irezumi. But I did really start to feel extremes in temperature. In summer, sweat pours off me like a waterfall in the areas where I haven't been tattooed. When I have a bowl of noodles, the sweat streams off my face and neck and the wareme. And in winter, my feet get absolutely freezing. I guess it all has to do with my skin breathing," she says. "But I can only ever buy the same clothes -- long sleeves and trousers."
Tendo's move from would-be-thug to inspirational writer came about as she drew confidence from her irezumi and hostessing and felt confident to go after what had been a dream since childhood.
"One day, it just came to me -- I gradually realized there're loads of people with worries just like me. For example, when I was working at nights as a hostesses. For every 10 hostesses, five had had some sort of cosmetic surgery. Talk to them and they all say they were ugly, but they weren't at all. None of them needed the surgery. I felt the same. I wanted to change everything. And I realized even the most beautiful women have got problems. So, I thought I'd put my feelings down in a book and everyone feeling the same would want to read it," she says, explaining how the idea for the original Japanese version of her autobiography "Yakuza Moon" came to mind. "When I was writing, the worst thing was reliving some of the horrible experiences, like when I was raped. But writing the book without talking about the horrible things left it feeling as though I was writing for self-satisfaction. It's what made me feel bad that people most want to read about it. But something about writing the book made me feel cleared up. I don't know what it was, but I was refreshed."
Tendo has wrenched herself from a harrowing youth of persecution and rough treatment. Unlike "Yakuza Moon," which can be chillingly frightening in parts with its graphic depictions of abuse, Tendo says her next project will be a bundle of laughs, but adds that any further explanation has to remain a secret.
Though Tendo has conquered so many adversities, the pain of what she has been through remains, and will probably do so for much of her life.
"I've got some heavy complexes, even now. I reckon I'm kinda sick. For example, say I meet someone I really like, I can't let them know how I really feel. One day, a guy I liked told me about that. He said, 'You talk loads about rubbish, but not much about important stuff. I never know what you're thinking.' The tears just poured out. 'I'm sorry, I've just got no self-confidence, I'm riddled with complexes I've had since I was a kid, when a whole lot of stuff went on. I just can't open up,'" she says, later adding: "People often tell me what a hard life I've had, but I don't see it that way. Life was just like that, it was all I knew and I handled it the only way I could." (By Ryann Connell)
May 3, 2007
Gangster daughter sheds light on Japan underworld
Mon Sep 3, 2007 4:53AM EDT
TOKYO (Reuters) - With her dyed-brown long hair and tight designer jeans, Shoko Tendo looks like any other stylish young Japanese woman -- until she removes her shirt to reveal the vivid tattoos covering her back and most of her body.
The elaborate dragons, phoenixes and a medieval courtesan with one breast bared and a knife between her teeth are a symbol of Tendo's childhood as the daughter of a "yakuza" gangster and her youth as a drug-using gang member.
The author of "Yakuza Moon," a best-selling memoir just out in English, the 39-year-old Tendo says that police efforts to eradicate the gangsters have merely made them harder to track.
"The more the police push, the more the yakuza are simply going underground, making their activities harder to follow than they ever were before," she told Reuters in a recent interview.
Police say full-fledged membership in yakuza groups fell to 41,500 last year, down from 43,000 in 2005, a decline they attribute to tighter laws against organized crime.
The number of yakuza hangers-on, including thugs and members of motorcycle gangs, who are willing to do their dirty work, though, rose marginally to 43,200.
More shocking for many in Japan, where gun-related crime is rare, were a handful of fatal shootings by yakuza earlier this year, including the killing of the mayor of Nagasaki.
Tendo said the shootings were a result of the legal crackdown on yakuza, which has made it harder for them to ply their traditional trades of prostitution, drugs and bid-rigging.
"They're being forced into a corner, their humanity taken away," she said. "All the things they used to do for a living have been made illegal, so life has become very hard."
Experts say this is especially true for gangsters in less affluent parts of Japan, a reflection of the same sort of income gaps that increasingly plague the nation as a whole.
"Yakuza need a lot of money, but depending on where they are, business isn't going so well," said Nobuo Komiya, a criminology professor at Tokyo's Rissho University. "So they turn to guns."
Descended from medieval gamblers and outlaws, yakuza were long portrayed as latter-day samurai, bound by traditions of honor and duty and living extravagant lives.
Tendo's father, the leader of a gang linked to the Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest yakuza group, led a "classic" yakuza life replete with Italian suits, imported cars and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Raised with strict ideas of honor, she was both spoiled and scolded by the tattooed men who frequented her family home.
But she also faced prejudice and bullying because of her father. In response, she joined a gang, took drugs and become the lover of several gangsters before near-fatal beatings and drug overdoses convinced her to change her life.
Now a writer and mother, Tendo has distanced herself from the yakuza world, which she feels is rapidly losing its traditions.
Being a gang member is not illegal in Japan, and until recently the gangs were known for openness. Their offices even posted signs with their names and membership lists inside.
Gangs cooperated with police, handing over suspects in return for police turning a blind eye to yakuza misdemeanors, but this broke down after organized crime laws were toughened in 1992.
The largest part of yakuza income now comes from pursuits involving stocks, property and finance.
"What we're going to see from here on is the yakuza becoming more structured, like the U.S. Mafia, and dividing itself between business experts and violence experts," said Manabu Miyazaki, a writer whose father was also a yakuza.
"As the world becomes more borderless, they'll need experts who can deal with this too, speaking Chinese and English."
Like Japan as a whole, gangsters are also ageing, and fewer young people look to organized crime as a career option.
Police figures showed fewer than 20 percent of yakuza were in their 20s in 2005, a trend both Tendo and Miyazaki attributed to young people's dislike for the tough life involved.
"They think being a yakuza is like joining a company," Miyazaki said. "There's a joke about a young man going to a gang office and asking what the salary was, and would he get insurance."
But while today's yakuza are eschewing tattoos and amputated fingers -- cut off to atone for mistakes -- in favor of more mainstream lifestyles, they are unlikely to disappear altogether.
"Fewer people want to become yakuza," Miyazaki said. "But those who do will be very logical, very scary -- and much, much more dangerous."