Tattoos, Totems, and the Troubled past

The lesser-known lives of the women who orbit around the Yakuza and how their exclusion from power will dismantle the Yakuza

For all my new subscribers - Welcome to Berkana!
Thank you for supporting my endeavors to deliver obscure stories every week. Since you are here, feel free to let me know your opinion on this feed.

Leave a comment

Without further ado let’s get started


Inago イナゴ (Locust)

There is something about the glamorous life of a gangster that pop culture loves to romanticize. Noir is one of the most beloved genres in literature and movies. In these stories, the entranced readers/viewers explore the morally grey lives of the archetypal Mob bosses. These temperamental men made us fall in love with their minimalistic and suave style. Now add honor, code of conduct, and loyalty to that and you will get the Japanese international criminal syndicate - The Yakuza. Native to Japan, these outlaws prosper underground. Like roots of a diseased tree, they spread through the culture and media. They are the personification of both history and myth. During the Edo period Yakuza were known for their service and value-centric subculture. The lives of these mercurial gangsters revolve around the themes of smuggling and social justice. These themes reflect on the problematic masochism and toxicity of their world. Their unpredictable character has fascinated and terrified the Japanese civilians simultaneously, and hence the popularity of the Yakuza-themed movies and video games skyrocketed. However, their personal lives and relationship dynamics were vastly unknown. Especially their connection with the women. Questions like how did the Yakuza perceive women and what roles do they play within the community. 

In recent times, their Robin Hood mask is slowly chipping away to reveal more terrifying aspects. The violence is visibly overflowing, leaving blood stains under city lights.

The women of the Yakuza world are often oblivious to the grim predicament that lingers in the lives of the men they love. Since a woman by definition cannot be an official Yakuza member, they are often associated with the gang through their relationship with the Yakuza men.  

The ancestors of the present-day Yakuza originated during the feudal times of the Tokugawa Shogunate(1600-1868). As per the legend, the ancestral Yakuza came into existence to serve and protect Japan’s lower economic strata. They were honorable men with a noble code of conduct. These local Robin Hood-type rebels were both loved and respected by the Japanese people. During this period some of the core values of Yakuza were formed -ninkyo(chivalry), giri-ninjo(duty and compassion), and jingi(honor and humanity). From these roots grew one of the most dangerous criminal syndicates in the world. In recent times, their Robin Hood mask is slowly chipping away to reveal more terrifying aspects. The violence is visibly overflowing, leaving blood stains under city lights. 

The modern Yakuza have evolved from the legends of their sullen ancestors into a breed that is thousand times more scandalous and brutal. They have morphed in ways almost unrecognizable in comparison to their predecessors. Let me put things into perspective by citing an example of how far the modern Yakuza have drifted from their ancestors.  The bakuto(traditional gamblers) are now loan sharks, protection money collectors, pimps, and corporate raiders. They work to help their bosses make more money. Their world revolves around drugs, prostitution, and violence.

She is proof that even in most rigid patriarchal structures, women can grow authority and harness power. Gender norms meant nothing to Yoshiko, she had to express her fierceness, and so she did

This modern world of Yakuza is mired in its devious pursuits and is unsuitable for young women. This explains the skewed demographics inside the gang. This is a world full of misfits and outlaws who have clambered their way out of the gut of social disparity to become violent and godless men. Women have no place here. The evil of Yakuza is a product of class prejudices. The Yakuza are practically social monsters. It is not an ordinary feat for a woman to display the vigor to be a Yakuza member and let alone a boss. And that is why the legends Onna-Oyabuns (gangster godmother) remain a rare myth. She is a ferocious archetype to be wary of. However, they are not obscure from the history of the Yakuza either. One woman, in particular, is widely documented as one of the most feared yakuza bosses ever - Yoshiko Matsuda.

In 1945, after the war(WWII), the Tokyo downtown was ruled by the Kanto-Matsuda-Gumi - a powerful and popular Yakuza gang. The then Oyabun (leader) Giichi Matsuda was known for his ruthless and violent ways in business. However, his arrest and eventual death left the group vulnerable to the other Yakuza wolves. At this point, the Yakuza world was yet to see some gangster showmanship shown by Giichi Matsuda’s wife-Yoshiko Matsuda. Displaying strong leadership skills in managing the business and the gang, Yoshiko proved that she was second to no man. Not even her husband. She was fierce, smart, and relentless. She steered the Yakuza ship with her iron will. She was the single most well-known Yakuza boss to have ever lived. Her energy was distinct and unmatched. She has singularly created the myth of the female gangster godmother that we see in movies. She is proof that even in most rigid patriarchal structures, women can grow authority and harness power. Gender norms meant nothing to Yoshiko, she had to express her fierceness, and so she did. I like to believe that she would have been as successful in any other profession like she did as a Yakuza boss. She just had the right amount of spirit blended beautifully with the feminine power she flaunted so fearlessly. 


Yūki 勇気 (Courage)

It is important to remember that even if the onna-oyabun once existed, such stories linger on the fringes and are not popular within the Yakuza subculture. The influence of Yoshiko was intense but short-lived. Post world war Japan moved towards progress, and Yoshiko - forgotten. Had her story survived within the Yakuza subculture, it would have inspired women who came after her to fight for their place in the gang instead of playing a submissive and supportive role. The feminine ambition is not very well-received in the Yakuza subculture. While most of Japan moved ahead in granting women equal rights and liberating them from the traditional gender roles, the Yakuza still relies on the relics of its outdated patriarchal philosophy. The toxic male narcissism is a standard differentiator between the Yakuza subculture and the rest of Japan. Their sense of masculinity is more derived from the devaluation of women rather than confidence in their ability. As per some anecdotal accounts documented by criminologist Rie Alkenade (in her study), she concluded that “the Yakuza men indeed do not view women as equals”. She also used her narrative to show that ‘disdain for women’ is ubiquitous throughout the Yakuza subculture. The Yakuza consider women to be inferior to men. They treat women as possessions, a way to satiate their egos. She only exists as a symbol of their lifestyle, wealth, and status. The women, when interviewed, revealed that fidelity is the last thing one should expect from a Yakuza man. The higher in the ranks they grow, the more unfaithful they eventually become. 

The glamorous lifestyle of Yakuza is another trap laid down neatly to attract young women from the lower economic strata of society. They get attracted to their criminal spouses in the hope of economic opportunity that these men can provide for a more prosperous life. And hence, they make a home inside the belly of the beast.

Strangely, many women with self-respect often choose to meddle with these men. Most of them claim that they have fallen in love without knowing that their partner was a Yakuza. There is no general characteristic of a woman who gets involved with Yakuza in romantic or marital relationships. However, their socio-economic status significantly pivots their chances of meeting and falling in love with a Yakuza. For example, women working in mizushoubai or the nightlife and entertainment industry are more likely to meet a Yakuza, as most of these places are Yakuza-owned. Many of these women come from troubled families, abusive childhood, juvenile homes, and are treated as outcasts by the conservative Japanese society. This lack of acceptance leads them to work in places run by the misfits and outlaws. Hence, getting them trapped in an endless inferno of crime and obscurity. The glamorous lifestyle of Yakuza is another trap laid down neatly to attract young women from the lower economic strata of society. They get attracted to their criminal spouses in the hope of economic opportunity that these men can provide for a more prosperous life. And hence, they make a home inside the belly of the beast. Without any access to independent financial means to set themselves free (as their livelihood and workplace is also a place dominated by the Yakuza), these women remain stuck. And thus the systemic oppression continues. 

The woman sub-sub culture inside the Yakuza is fascinating. It is a hidden network of sisterhood. The more we understand their group dynamics and individual roles within their community, the more we can debunk the outlook of submissive women that we believed them to be. On the contrary, they are subversive, rebellious, and powerful. They fight the patriarchy while denying being limited to domestic responsibilities. They often work in nightclubs as escorts and strippers to help their partners financially. The more their partners climb up in the hierarchy the more sophisticated their income source becomes. The ane-san(big sister, term used to refer to the boss’s wife) usually handles the financial responsibility to feed and take care of all the subordinates and their wives. In addition to the finances, she is also responsible to support, advise, and take care of the emotional well-being of the entire gang and their families. That is no mean feat, even for a gangster’s wife. The ane-san is usually an iron-willed woman with a solid sense of pride and indomitable resilience. However, one is not born but becomes a strong woman when life demands. As Maiko Ishihara (former ane-san) recalled in her biography, “As a Yakuza wife you just can’t stay submissive. The number of subordinates to look after increases, and there are more issues to resolve. You just grow stronger naturally”. These women possess an innate sense of duty towards their husband's subordinates and hence nurture them with their maternal care. Their dedication and service keep the whole group together as a family. 


Kemono 獣 (Beast)

The Yakuza world is so haunted by violence that at some point it manages to escape business and enter the family premises. One such shocking story is that of Shoko Tendo, daughter of a former Yakuza mob boss. The unraveling of Shoko’s stories gave me a clenched gut through and through. In the picture - a wistful smile was plastered on her lips, and yet her melancholic eyes pierced my soul. In her book, Yakuza Moon Shoko takes us on a ride into the troubled depths of her Yakuza past. The fact that she did not choose to be associated with the Yakuza but was born to one, makes her story even more heart-wrenching. 

There is a cost of being a Yakuza which one has to pay invariably. Shoko had first-hand experience of such consequences. In the Yakuza world, wolves are waiting around every corner. Once your power starts to fizzle, the wolves will tear you apart. Exactly what has happened to her father. After failing miserably in his construction business, Shoko was pimped by her father to his subordinates to whom he was indebted. The young and homeless Yakuza teenager that she was, Shoko got sucked into the quicksand of sex slavery, meth addiction, and gang violence. She received her supply of poison and validation in dingy downtown Tokyo hotel rooms - tossed between violent lovers. After one particularly bad beating, which later needed facial reconstruction surgery, Shoko decided that she was done with drugs and Yakuza men for good. But the final move for her was to get the irezumi (traditional Japanese tattoo). Abandoned, raped, and abused repeatedly through her young teenage years to her early 20s, Shoko decided to get a full-body tattoo. This was her acknowledgment of her Yakuza roots and a radical step to break the vicious cycle of her abuse. Her bold bareback depicted a muromachi era courtesan with a bare breast and a knife clenched between her teeth. She believes that the ikezumi is a protective spell which she casts over herself - an act of subversion and taking back her body from the grips of her painful past. 

Shoko is now 53 and a fierce mother of a baby girl named Komachi. When asked by a Marie Claire journalist how she would deal with any bullying that her daughter might face because of her mother’s troubled past. Shoko flared red with fearlessness saying, “If anyone is cruel to my kid, I’ll beat the living daylights out of them” - a response that was worthy of her Yakuza bloodline. A supermom in her own right, Shoko also reminds us of the archetype of a phoenix rising from her ashes. 

She believes that the ikezumi is a protective spell which she casts over herself - an act of subversion and taking back her body from the grips of her painful past


Jikan 時間 (Time)

The life of a delinquent is marred with many government track records, however, nothing is as permanent as the full-body irezumi, exclusively associated with the Yakuza. Getting an irezumi in Japan is nothing less than an elaborate method of self-imprisonment. The history of the tattoos originates from an unusual root and speaks volumes about its association with the Yakuza. The Japanese government practiced punishment in which the outlaws were tattooed on a visible body part like arms or forehead. The Yakuza mobs decide to take the pain and turn it into power. They started to tattoo themselves to show a deeper commitment and belonging to the Yakuza subculture. The ostracised criminals are now recognized as the dangerous and volatile Yakuza who no one would mess with. It is both a symbol of subversion and power.

A body engraved with tattoos defies everything that is considered civil in Japanese society - moral code of conduct, collectivism, and virtue of hard labor. It stands for the rebellion of marginalized people against the poverty created by the social constructs of class.

These irezumi take hundreds of hours to finish. They are traditionally etched using Tebori - a hand carving technique using bamboo and needle and Nara ink. Although these tattoos are tests of tolerance and patience, their owners are still stereotyped as dangerous delinquents. Tattoos are not very well received in Japanese culture mainly due to their ideological clash with Confucianism. A body engraved with tattoos defies everything that is considered civil in Japanese society - moral code of conduct, collectivism, and virtue of hard labor. It stands for the rebellion of marginalized people against the poverty created by the social constructs of class. It is the sign of the Yakuza. It threatens the system of conformists. It displeases those who are comfortable in their middle-class mediocrity. It enrages the government. Therefore the discrimination against anyone with tattoos is practiced openly to outcast the Yakuza. This is done to keep them separate and treat them as sub-humans. The tattoos gave them identity, a worthy narrative, and a community. However, it also stands for the irreversibility of having chosen a Yakuza way of life. 


Inochi azukemasu  命 預 け ま す ( I give you my life) 

An ambitious young french photographer Chloé Jafé was determined to document the little-known life of Yakuza women (spouses, daughters, and lovers) when she arrived in Tokyo. Due to the patriarchal structure of the Yakuza subculture, Jafé knew that she had to masterfully craft her way through the men of Yakuza to infiltrate and have an access to the women. Jafé continued her mission without any lead for 2 years, working as a hostess in a Yakuza-owned nightclub. After endless toil and on the verge of giving up, she inadvertently met a Yakuza boss. Jafé recalls that he was a charming and kind man who invited her for a drink. When they next met at a location chosen by Jafé, she already had a printed proposal of the project she desired to undertake. The boss was amused with her obsessive plan to photograph the irezumi of the women. Chloé had to slowly build her trust working through the subtleties of Japanese etiquettes, manners, and cues to get access to the women. But that was not all. Now she also had to win the friendship of the conservative and suspicious wives. After all, to enable her project, they had to allow her to photograph their bare bodies. But she unknotted their layers using the virtue of gaman(patience). 

..these women have abandoned their pursuit of self to follow the devil to the underworld. Since her project was reflecting on this lifetime of commitment, Jafé chose to name the project ‘I give you my life…’

The result was her enchanting collection of work (find it here). The photographs seem to narrate stories that are on the fringes. The bare body and soul in front of Chloé belonged to women who knew everything about perseverance because they have endured unimaginable pain. With extensive irezumi covering their entire bodies, these tattoos are symbols of inner power. Some claimed they got it because they wanted to keep some specific men away, others narrated their aspiration to match the vigor of the men they love. They wear it proudly - a symbol of love and pride of having accomplished their fear of commitment to these dangerous men and their twisted desires. Although they hide this in public by covering themselves from head to toe, they found themselves vulnerable and understood, in front of the camera. They embraced their individuality, sheer will, and deep commitment to Yakuza life. However, these women have abandoned their pursuit of self to follow the devil to the underworld. Since her project was reflecting on this lifetime of commitment, Jafé chose to name the project ‘I give you my life…’

However, one question lingers eerily in the background of these photographs. A haunting reminder of their immense sacrifices. The question is - ‘...and in return for what?’ 


Torappu トラップ (Trap)

Women have historically proven to be the best punching bags as they have quietly absorbed the shock of violence. Even if the Yakuza men committed the crimes openly, women had to bear the brunt. Is it worth it? -a life long enslavement to the whims of men who don’t see you as equals. Life outside the law and its protection, society and its customs, rights and its exercise - is it a life worth pursuing? Do the sacrifices outweigh the half-assed love reciprocated in installments? If yes, then instead of a body it is a flesh trap that ensnares their spirit in a limited existence. These tattoos that they proudly embrace imprison their freedom to express themselves. These tattoos further isolate an already secluded group of women who were cast out by society, for loving a Yakuza.


Kyakka 却下 (Decline) 

The Yakuza has a reputation to pursue life with intensity and the perpetual use of violence. This approach is unsustainable for the healthy growth of any community. Communities are generally built on the pillars of trust, mutual respect, progressive mindset, and inclusivity of diverse members. However, the Yakuza was not ready to compromise on their man-exclusive, toxic structure within which there is zero tolerance to differences. These are petty men who pride themselves on the power to possess, abuse, and profit from a female body. Ultimately the whole underworld is full of broken men living within the dark shadows of an obscure world. After all, Yakuza is not a monster born out of desire but a necessity that urges marginalized people to survive in a world that is not kind to them. They are the monsters raised out of the shadows cast by our privileged lives. They are byproducts of social ostracism and class disparity. And hence, they were never meant to be a breed that survives within complex and evolving social structures. 

People entered because they wanted a life of power, influence, and easy money. However, since the Yakuza values devolved over time - the community has to vanish one day. And vanish, it will.

With its rusted values and befitting predicament, the Yakuza families are gradually losing their power and control. After the government passed a series of laws in 2011, to strategically eliminate such gangs from their jurisdiction, they find it hard to find recruits. If listed under Yakuza, you can be denied the right to have a bank account, own a phone, or register for insurance. The risks outweigh the rewards. The youth have found new opportunities and are gravitating towards a life that explores the technological landscape of Japan more than the traditional Yakuza-owned businesses (construction and mobility). No one sets out to become a Yakuza only to be dying, old, and alone in a shabby Tokyo downtown basement. That wasn’t the initial promise. People entered because they wanted a life of power, influence, and easy money. However, since the Yakuza values devolved over time - the community has to vanish one day. And vanish, it will.


Liked this article? Share it with your friends

Share