Shoko Tendo - Yakuza's Daughter

Published: 06 July, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 181, January, 2010

Born into a yakuza family, Shoko Tendo is the author of a bestselling title translated in to more than 30 languages. In her book Yakuza Moon, this young Japanese woman tells about her life in a world of drugs, sex, violence…and tattoos.


Why did you write this book?

My father was a yakuza and the neighbours didn’t really like us. When I was a kid, I had a lot of problems trying to communicate with my classmates as I was blacklisted and mistreated by the other pupils. I didn’t have any friends and I spent my time reading. I started getting tattooed when I was around 20 years old. In Japan, it is extremely difficult to find work when you’re tattooed. I was condemned to work in the underground. Later, once divorced, my parents died, I asked myself about what I could do and about my future. I wanted to express what I felt and what I went through. I don’t consider myself as someone with a special life but maybe other people are in the same situation. I wanted to write for these people, having harsh times, I wanted them to find reading the book some light and hope. 


Your father was a yakuza; you were surrounded by tattooed men, what was your feeling towards tattoos? 

When I was young I knew that something was really different between my father, his men, and the neighbours. In my family, my father was the only one to have tattoos and I was the only one to be curious about it. I think it’s really beautiful and I always loved ukiyo-e (Japanese prints going back from the 17th century). When my father was taking his bath, I had the feeling of talking to the Buddha on his back. I can compare it with reading a book, it’s written with words but you imagine the story. It’s the same for tattoos; you get the impression that he will materialise, that the tattooed picture is going to move. When I was a kid I had a lot of fun with it. I was used to stick fake small tattoos that you get in sweets on myself. One day at the swimming pool, the teacher got angry with me because of these stickers and all my classmates looked at me weirdly. I didn’t understand, for me it was just beautiful.


How important is the tattoo for the yakuza? 

I think there is this idea of communion around tattoo as an expression of an irreversible decision. When you get tattooed, you can be pretty sure that you won't find any work. There is this idea to be part of another world inside the world. I think that the ones that get tattoos love it; it is an artistic expression as any other. They are aware of having something really beautiful on them and they don’t understand the outside point of view of the normal society. 


When did you receive your first tattoo? 

I was 21 years old. I already had in mind to have a huge piece covering the back but only half sleeves, because even when I was working as a hostess I wanted to them under my suit. The master who gave me the tattoo comes from Kazawa, in the south of Japan; at that time he was running a studio in Tokyo. He doesn’t work by hand but with machine. It took one week to complete the backpiece, 3/4 hours per session. Usually for other people it’s hard, you can get feverish and you sick but not me, I was still fresh. From where I come from it’s not allowed to have fever or to be weak. At around 30 years old, I quit my job and I continued to get tattooed.


Your decision to get tattooed was quite sudden, why?

I went with a friend of mine that booked an appointment with a tattoo artist. While waiting at the studio for her I had a look on the walls. The more I was looking at them, the more I was impressed by the work of the tattoo artist, a true shock. At that time, my boyfriend was beating me, but I was always hoping the situation could change, and that it would change in a better way. But the situation was getting worse and more violent. Deep inside of me, I was really ashamed to keep hoping for this change, I knew that it would never happen. So I figured that I really needed to change something in my life and in my lifestyle. Finally, thanks to the tattoo, I changed my personality. 


How did you choose the design? 

In the beginning I wanted a dragon but my master finally made the decision about the design. He thought that a dragon was too masculine and he had already something else in mind. Since the first time he saw me, he could only think about one specific design. He would have refused all other requests, even customers that would pay extra money, to do it on me. 


Can you tell us more about the design of Jigoku Dayu?

She was a concubine during the Muromachi period (1338-1573), she lived in Sakaï, near Osaka. We are told that she was the daughter of a samouraï captured by his enemies and then sold to a brothel. Then, she became the concubine of a Zen monk, she studied Buddhism to get contentment about her tragic destiny. She changed her name and took Jigoku Dayu, the concubine of hell, and used to ware a kimono with embroidered scenes depicting hell. In the pleasure quarter, she became the most respected concubine. Jigoku Dayu usually appears in a dark and gloomy staging with skulls, ghosts and other demons. When I heard her story, I felt really close to Jigoku Dayu.


What was the influence of this design on your life? 

It’s not only a matter of influence; it’s a reincarnation of this character in my body. The feeling is more spiritual in the sense where I live a life that I would have never imagined when I was younger. Getting this character tattooed on my body is like a confirmation, an illustration of how I live today. Moreover, I was more into doing things half the way they should have been done, I couldn’t make choices, I couldn’t refuse anything; I was always thinking about what others might say. It’s over today; when I decide to do something, I really mean it. 


What kind of difficulties does a tattooed woman have to face in Japan? 

It drastically reduces your chances to live a normal life, personally or professionally, in the Japanese society. I could never have a common boyfriend who had a normal life, who studied in university... He will always have bias in favour of me, and even if he doesn’t, his family will. There will always be something like a huge wall to face; there is no happiness in this way for life. I already knew that I would never be happy. Then, another problem came with my child. How to explain her? Even if she understands later, how will the other children and their parents react? In my daily life, I always have to think about not showing off my tattoos. Dressing with long sleeve clothes, when I take the metro and I grab a handle, I have to think about hiding my wrist. It’s a situation that considerably reduces your world. 


What is the situation actually in the yakuza underground?

It’s completely different today. Being yakuza is not a full-time activity, a lot of them work in regular companies. And in this working environment, getting tattooed today is no more possible. For example, in the case of mafia people that are connected with regular businessmen, many play golf because it’s good for business. But once in the changing rooms or in the shower, tattoos are really embarrassing. 


What is the subject of your next book?

It’s about single mothers. Most women in Japan get married, divorced and then become single. This is a common situation. But the Japanese society has a huge bias in favour of women that never get married, and I want to write about this state of mind illustrated with examples from my own life.



Photography & Interview: pascal bagot


Skin Deep 181 1 January 2010 181