By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Shoko Tendo grew up a yakuza’s daughter turned into a juvenile delinquent, then a drug addict, then finally a sturdy writer with a compelling memoir. Being daddy’s girl didn’t shield her from much, and her life bore no resemblance to the Western image of a coddled “mafia princess.” Underneath her walking, talking, I-don’t-care exterior is someone who never knew love, security and stability.
Tendo’s family, including one brother and three sisters, had standing in Japan’s underworld in Osaka. Even with four businesses under his thumb, her father struggled financially, a problem worsened by his own illness and costly hospitalization.
Tendo remembers father as “a larger-than-life character,” always tinkering over his pricey autos and motorcycles, a showy speed demon who liked to “rev his engine like a drag racer then floor it the moment the light turned green.” Through his sickness, and the upheavals in its aftermath, Tendo loses faith in her father’s ability to make things right.
In the corridors of the hospital, her agony and rage start to fall into place.
As a teenager, Tendo took to speed, dispensed from a syringe, hot-wiring her system to stay awake days on end. Along with the bristling solution arrive men who want her for certain crude sexual practices mistakenly called “romance.”
Throughout her memoir there is a detached study of detail that serves Tendo well as she contrasts that tone with the horrors her mind became. “Going cold turkey (from speed) was tough,” she starts simply enough. “First, I suffered from constant hallucinations. I saw and heard some horrific things, and then I couldn’t sleep at all. … This was how I escaped the hell that was speed addiction.” She knows to stick with the facts and let the emotions suggest themselves.
Locked in a Japanese “love hotel” (Eastern cousin to what my mother calls a “hot-sheet” establishment) for days at a time, her partners physically abuse her and treat her like an incarnation of the always-game porn stars they watch for amusement. To them, she is a toy. They show affection and brutality by turns.
She goes in for a tattoo because it’s the kind of pain she can command and because it resembles the tattoos yakuza wear. When her father imperiously marries her off to another yakuza (after deliberating about three seconds), she watches her new husband’s skin ink crawling over her own.
“As Taka’s dragon and lion tattoo entwined itself around my dayu, I imagined how happy the courtesan must have been to have found her patron at last,” Tendo dreams, fantasizing about a long-shot lasting love.
“Yakuza Moon” casts no explicit condemnation on the yakuza way of life. However, it shows simply what a woman, one who knows her own mind, must surmount to survive that life. At the end of the memoir Tendo has a baby girl and a freshly adopted kitten but no man in her life.
The loss of her father — emotionally and physically — leaves an emptiness in her. “I think a lot about the moon,” she winds down. “How it constantly waxes and wanes, just like my life with its highs and lows.” ♦
“Yakuza Moon: Memoir of a Gangster’s Daughter,” by Shoko Tendo. Published by Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York and London. $22.95.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.