Shoko Tendo: Born into the Japanese Mob


Tendo and daughter

The Café de Paris in Tokyo is bustling with chic young women sipping coffee  and reveling in the restaurant’s air of faux-French refinement. Shoko Tendo  calmly puffs on a cigarette beneath the twinkling chandeliers. She knows she  could shatter the decorum by merely rolling up her sleeves. Her arms — and  almost every other inch of her birdlike body — are plastered with the trademark  tattoos of a Japanese gangster.
Instead, she’s careful not to reveal  that she comes from the yakuza, Japan’s much-feared world of organized  crime. Despite the cloying late-summer heat, she’s clothed practically head to  toe, in a long-sleeve lilac shirt layered over a white tee and skinny jeans.  She’s a different kind of rebel these days. Leaving behind her gangster  loyalties, she has become a talk-show celebrity in Japan — the first female ever  to break the code of silence and speak about life for women in the underworld.
In a knee-jerk way, I expect the russet-haired Tendo, whose father was a  high-ranking mob boss, to be intimidating, or at least loud and brash, but she  speaks to me with a quiet thoughtfulness in her native Japanese. Her  best-selling memoir, Yakuza Moon, shocked this conservative nation three  years ago with its graphic accounts of her addictions to sex, drugs, and violent  lovers. With the book’s recent publication in the U.S., she has agreed to do her  first-ever interview with a foreign magazine to discuss the impact of her  decision to speak out — and about her life now as a single mother.
She’s  more relaxed in person, with an iced coffee in hand, than she appears in her  book, so I jump right in and ask why she’s still alive after writing it.  Usually, any kind of betrayal in the mob world is an automatic death sentence.  And the yakuza are an especially macho bunch, known for rituals that signify  their fanatic allegiance, such as severing their little fingers to atone for  mistakes. “I was really nervous about that,” Tendo says. “But I think I’ve  gotten away with it so far partly because I focused only on my own experience  and didn’t incriminate anyone else.” Yes, she gets threatening phone calls, but  Tendo, 39, insists she has no regrets. “I needed to do this for myself to find  out where I belong in the world,” she says, explaining that yakuza women, while  rarely involved in criminal activities themselves, are vilified by association.  “People in Japan can smell it if you come from a background like mine — you  can’t hide it. I wanted to change my life, but I realized the only way I could  do that was by first being honest about who I was.”


Marie Claire