The tattoo on Shoko Tendo’s back reaches all the way down both her legs, right to her ankles. It wasn’t always like that: when she had been embroiled in the yakuza lifestyle, it had only covered her back. Only after she left that world did she extend the inkwork that most people would have gone to no small lengths to hide. Here it is, she seemed to be saying. Take me as I really am.
Yakuza Moon is the sort of autobiography that no woman should ever have to write. Not simply because the yakuza is a male world, where women are accessories at best and chattel at worst, but because Tendo was born too close to that world to say no to it from the beginning. The damage that was inflicted on her became damage she in turn inflicted on herself. If half of what’s in the book is true, she is seven kinds of lucky to have escaped all of that — and many more kinds of strong, too. The book is also evidence of how most people’s greatest strengths are invisible to them, because they embody them naturally and don’t seek them out. She may not have felt strong, but she was.
Tendo tells her story without embellishment; none is needed. She was the daughter of a well-connected gang member, who also had a roster of legitimate businesses to his credit. His family life came as an afterthought, as is the case in many such families: money and power were first. A stint in prison for Dad coincided with Tendo’s early childhood, where the other kids in school picked on her for having a gangster father. It got no better when Dad came back out of prison, since his time there only seemed to have hardened his resolve to flaunt what he had — to throw around money that wasn’t really his, to bring home bar hostesses and to trash his house in drunken rages.
By the time Tendo was a teenager, her family’s house stripped bare by yakuza creditors, she’d realized that the only way out of such bedlam was to drill a hole of your own and jump through it. Her sister Maki set an example for her to follow: she was a yanki, one of the glue-sniffing, dyed-hair bad girls that even many of the teachers shied away from messing with. Tendo threw herself headfirst into that hell-raising lifestyle, losing her virginity with another gang member and picking up the first of many nasty addictions (toluene-sniffing, meth, a whole galaxy of other drugs) that would plague her for years to come. A stint in reform school on her part and a sobering attack of TB on Dad’s pushed them that much closer together, but it didn’t undo the damage already done to her spirit in other ways. The way Tendo deals with her father is not easy to pigeonhole: she clearly wanted to shove him away once and for all — but she also makes it obvious that in this life you only have one mother and one father, gangster or not.
Much of Tendo’s pain — something she is only too willing to own up to — came from the men she ended up with. Sometimes it was not a matter of choice: at one point she all but prostitutes herself to Maejima, a despicable character who promises being able to ease up on Dad’s debts. He provides her with meth and torrid sex, two things she can hide in at the cost of further damage to her body and soul. But sometimes she simply chose the wrong men, over and over: by the time she met Shin, a genuinely nice fellow who worried about her, she was too wrecked to say yes to him without also worrying about having her then-boyfriend try to split her head open with an ashtray.
In time, though, Tendo was able to pull her life together. She kicked her drug habits, moved up from sponging off gangster boyfriends to doing real work, and — most importantly — traded one set of social circles for another. The hardest part about leaving the life, as she makes it clear, is leaving behind the people in that life. Whether they were good or bad to you doesn’t seem as important as whether or not you were close to them, and the analogies that come to mind about abusive spouses are completely fitting here. Hardest of all is knowing that stepping away does not mean you will always end up in a better place at first, and a lot of Tendo’s steps lead her from one kind of hell to another. Even when she’s able to better her own lot, her sister Maki ends up repeating many of her own mistakes (e.g., falling for a fellow whose compulsion for gambling sucks dry everyone around them).
Two things become clear fairly early on. The first is how the yakuza lifestyle as glamorized in, say, Takashi Miike movies is maybe a fleeting percentage of what it actually is like. Most of it is debt, violence, boredom, and either beating or being beaten — not so much a way of life as it is a set of holding actions against life. Just being part of that scene doesn’t mean you ever enjoy most of what it has to offer, anyway, and even those that did could only measure out that joy in the smallest of containers. The second is how being in that world tainted you in countless ways — not just through the ostracism of others not part of that world, but in how being part of that world taught you a set of responses to life that don’t work anywhere else. Small wonder most of the ballads about gokudo, the yakuza world, are about what a dead end it all is.
There is no end to the heartbreaking moments in this book, all the more so because they are delivered in the same careful, unblinking, unexaggerated tone. At one point Tendo is freshly scarred from a beating that left her near death, working endless hours in a pachinko parlor side-by-side with her husband, decorating their little rabbit-hutch apartment with scraps salvaged from a demolished house. When she learns she’s pregnant on top of everything else, she realizes she may have to lose her child rather than suffer it to be born and not fed properly. But then there are the moments of personal triumph, big and small — as when Tendo elects to have herself tattooed, not to show fidelity to the yakuza world but to declare independence from it. Or when she finally scrapes together the money to give her mother and father side-by-side funeral plots, both to give them a resting place and to prove to herself that such a far-flung goal can be brought all the closer with the help of others.
I have to wonder if there are people who picked up Yakuza Moon thinking it would be a real-life run-through of the plot of some hard-boiled crime picture — e.g.., the Gokudo Wives series, which were allegedly based on interviews with women in the yakuza life. Moon is to them what GoodFellas was to Scarface, a de-mythologizer — although, by the end of the book, Tendo isn’t a nobody who gets to live the rest of her life like a schnook. Quite the opposite.