Interview: Shoko Tendo on growing up in the seamy world of Japanese gangsters

Her memoir of growing up in the criminal underworld gripped Japan. But, as Shoko Tendo explains, she's now escaped her violent, drug-addled past to begin a new life of middle-class respectability

Shoko Tendo grew up in the house of a crime boss, spent her teens in a fog of hard drugs and sex, then careened from one doomed relationship to another with a succession of violent petty gangsters. Her life has been scarred by beatings, addiction and several attempted rapes and suicides – all reported in a sometimes stomach-churning biography that has gripped Japan.

So it is disconcerting when she shows up clutching a bag of cakes, which she presents with the deepest of bows. "I'm so very sorry for cancelling our previous appointment," she says. Polite, delicate-featured and painfully thin, she looks more like a slightly weathered manga character than daughter of the demimonde... as long as you ignore the garish tattoos poking out from under her sleeve.

Now 39, Tendo turned her life around before writing her biography, Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter, which has sold almost 100,000 copies and was published in English this year. The book offers a rare woman's view of Japan's criminal underbelly, a cruel world ruled by chinpira (young yakuza punks), many of whom seem to have beaten the daylights out of her. "Every time I met a new man I thought he would be different," she recalls. "When they cried and said sorry I forgave them. I never learnt."

Her battle scars make her sound like a casualty from a warzone: broken bones and teeth, perforated eardrums, a hernia, bald patches from having her hair pulled out and hepatitis, probably from drug use. Plastic surgery has helped reconstruct her face, but her health is delicate and she is recovering from another operation.

Tendo worshipped her father, an Armani-clad yakuza gangster, and grew up in a world most ordinary Japanese people never see. She recalls one incident from her childhood, when a young gangster came to their door and tried to hand his severed little finger to her father – a traditional method of yakuza atonement. "My mother tried to shield my eyes, but I could still see the blood dripping from his hand. My dad was furious and split the guy's head open with an object in the hall. He said, 'Why did you cut your finger off? You need it for work.'"

Throughout her childhood, Tendo listened to romantic stories about the yakuza code of honour and its role in society. It is a role she defends, despite the mob's involvement in prostitution, drugs, real-estate scams and even murder. "You can see what happens when they are run out of a place such as Kabukicho," she explains, referring to Tokyo's biggest red-light district. "Other foreign gangsters move in and it becomes chaotic and disorganised. It is better to have them keeping order."

Tendo credits a "life-changing decision" to get a tattoo for giving her the mental strength to pull out of her death-dive of disastrous relationships. "No more wimpy attitude," she writes about her first visit to a tattoo parlour. "It was time to start over."

Her body is now a rippling, inky canvas of dragons, flowers, phoenixes and courtesans. Tendo has never regretted her tattoos, despite having to keep almost permanently covered up in a country where they still retain their lurid association with the underworld. But she struggles to explain why they are so empowering, or why she would deepen her symbolic association with the yakuza even as she cut her physical ties.

"It's difficult to put into words," she says. "My father had a huge buddha on his back and many of the people who came to our house had tattoos. I knew that made them different to ordinary people, but also that the relationship between them was stronger than blood. I guess I felt that this was the world that I belonged to. I felt at home there."

Today, she is the single mother of a two-year-old daughter who she is raising while writing the follow-up to Yakuza Moon. Her partner is a photographer and a far cry from the volatile men who almost ruined her life. "He's almost comically different: very gentle and almost feminine. He freaks out when he sees my tattoos and tells me to cover them when we're out." The next book will be partly about the differences in their upbringing, his being in an ordinary middle-class home.

What would she do if her daughter came home with a gangster? She smiles. "If he was a real traditional type with manners and honour, I'd be OK, but I'd draw the line at chinpira. I'd have to protect her."

'Yakuza Moon' by Shoko Tendo is published in English by Kodansha International (www.kodansha-intl.com)

Who are the yakuza?: How the mob rose to power in Japan

Japanese mobsters came to prominence after the Second World War, running the black markets that sprang up in the devastated country. At their peak, they mixed with prime ministers, celebrities and Japan's richest businessmen, and were romanticised in popular movies and books as protectors of traditions and the true inheritors of the Bushido code of honour.

The introduction of an anti-mob law in 1992 and a decade of economic slump has taken its toll: in the law's immediate aftermath, several smaller groups went bust or merged, and the number of full and associate members fell from a high of more than 90,000 to 79,300. Yet, they are still many times more numerous than the US mafia at its peak and the biggest yakuza group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, which counted Shoko Tendo's father among its associates, is bigger and more powerful than ever. The group's bosses have their HQ in a large compound in an upper-class neighbourhood of Kobe City, where they host a monthly gathering of crime bosses from across the country, under the noses of the police.

Yakuza income has shrunk along with the rest of the economy, but some groups have moved out of traditional business such as prostitution and loan-sharking into real estate. A government-funded study in the late-1990s found that as much as 42 per cent of bad loans from banks involved organised crime. Most mobsters avoid stirring up trouble with the law, but occasionally violence flares. Earlier this year, a mobster pumped two bullets into the mayor of Nagasaki. He later told police he was angry because the mayor had failed to fix his car after it was damaged by a city pothole.

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