TOKYO (TR) – Upon introduction, author Shoko Tendo does not offer the image of a woman who has spent much of her life mixed up with drugs and yakuza gangsters.
With straight brown hair and sharp facial features shaped by reconstructive plastic surgery, this 42-year-old daughter of a mobster reveals no visual hints as to her past, aside from the occasional glimpse of one of her elaborate tattoos peering from under the cuff of her long shirtsleeve.
She is not shy about revealing that striking artwork covering her pencil-thin frame. A courtesan with a dagger gripped in her teeth fills her back as serpents crawl along her arms and legs. Kanji characters and carp fill in the spaces between and around.
“In public, people don’t see tattoos,” explains the soft-spoken Tendo, seated in a coffee shop in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro Ward on a rainy day in February. “They disapprove. But when I grew up I saw my father and people around him with tattoos. It was close at hand, and I thought, that’s me.”
Life of despair
Self-discovery is an ongoing process for Tendo, a native of Osaka whose latest book “Full Moon Baby,” released in December, discusses being a single mother in Japan — yet another challenge in a life that has been fraught with despair.
“There’s a difference between being a single mom and not married and a single mom and divorced,” she says of her book, a follow-up to “Yakuza Moon,” her massively popular debut. “If a woman has not been married, the baby is considered illegitimate. This gives a negative image of a hidden past. In foreign countries, this is not an unusual situation. I wrote this book to change that dark image that is held by society in Japan.”
The 166-page book is an earnest account of how she refrained from having sex for over a decade until her “last chance” to have a baby, at the age of 37. The father of Tendo’s daughter, named Komachi, is a photographer, with whom her relationship had its complications and she is now estranged. Society’s stigma toward her situation follows her to ordinary places like the hospital and the local ward office.
This is light reading compared to “Yakuza Moon,” which has sold over 100,000 copies since its release in 2004. (The English version, one of over a dozen languages in which it has appeared, followed three years later.)
It is a frank description of a brutal life. As a youth, continual bullying for being a member of family working for the mob eventually pushed her to the fringes of society. She spent eight months in a reformatory following a fight in which she was arrested for assault while high on paint thinner. In later years, as debt problems within her family mounted, she began shooting speed, sleeping with a number of yakuza, many who marred her face with their fists, and, before the age of 20, working as a nightclub hostess.
After an especially harsh beating and raping by an ex-boyfriend just prior to her marriage to a gangster, who wound up cutting off a pinkie for disobeying his boss’ order not to pummel her attacker, she found herself penniless and moved to Tokyo to begin work at a pachinko parlor. But her mother’s death sent her into a deep depression and she wound up attempting suicide by swallowing handfuls of sleeping pills.
“I wrote that book by facing my past,” she says. “It made me remember those days. That wasn’t something that was easy to face up to. I had no problems writing about myself, but it was most difficult to write about my family.”
Her neck-to-foot body tattoos, a notorious symbol of Japan’s criminal underworld, have been accumulated over the years as a means of acknowledging her history and empowering herself to deal with it.
Tendo’s father died of stomach cancer when she was 29. Unlike her reaction to her mother’s passing, she became inspired to change her life. By then divorced and employed again as a hostess — this time in Tokyo’s red-light district of Kabukicho — she devoted herself to her work. When she turned 30, she opened her first savings account.
Her transformation was complete when she worked her last day at the club. That evening was punctuated by the appearance of a full moon, whose waxing and waning Tendo feels perfectly represents her life’s highs and lows.
In spite of this tumultuous early life she does not view her association with the yakuza world negatively. “I have accepted where I came from without hesitation or doubt,” she says. “I never questioned it.”
The Japanese National Police Agency estimates that there are roughly 80,000 gangsters in Japan dealing in everything from prostitution to drugs to fraud. Typically they do not look favorably upon revelations about their well-hidden society.
But “Yakuza Moon” does not venture into their operations, and Tendo says that the book was well received. “In books or movies, there is a hero,” she says. “In my book, there is no good yakuza. After its release, I got a letter from a yakuza group saying that it depicted their life accurately and that they were happy about it.”
Tendo frequently visits a cemetery in Sugamo, Tokyo to pay her respects at her family’s plot. She offers thanks to her parents for looking after her and prays for the prosperity of her daughter and her work as a writer, which will find her following up “Full Moon Baby” with a novel about a woman who grows up in a gang.
Before he died, Tendo’s father wrote in a letter, “Shoko, please continue to believe in yourself.” Maintaining this kind of confidence, however, is seemingly an ongoing battle that is sometimes conveyed through her Web blog.
In the entry that covers the interview for this article, she mentions that it is common for writers to want to dig into her past, which conjures up memories of her emotional and financial struggles when she first arrived in Tokyo. “This is something that has bothered me for a long time,” she writes. “But today I realized that this is a part of me that has made me strong. It is because of those hard times that I am who I am today.”
Note: This article originally appeared in the June issue of iNTOUCH, the magazine of the Tokyo American Club.