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Sunday, Aug. 12, 2007

Nothing romantic about being yakuza


Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter by Shoko Tendo, translated by Louise Heal. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2007, 192 pp., $22.95 (cloth)

The late author Koji Kata, a prolific chronicler of crime in contemporary Japan, once observed, "Nobody ever set out in life with the aim of becoming a yakuza."

An offspring of a yakuza, however, has even less choice in the matter. Still, a few have risen from rough-and-tumble beginnings to achieve success and even respectability.

In his acclaimed autobiography "Toppamono," journalist-commentator Manabu Miyazaki recounts how growing up in a gang-connected Kyoto family led to his radical political idealism.

Mitsuyo Ohira, like the author of "Yakuza Moon," was once a wild Kansai female with a full body tattoo. Overcoming her disadvantages, Ohira passed the bar examination and became a celebrated legal advocate for juveniles. Her inspiring autobiography — titled "So Can You" in English — sold more than 2 million copies. In 2003, she was appointed Osaka's deputy mayor.

Before we wax ecstatic over a person with a colorfully tattooed epidermis, we ought to consider the bumpy road he or she traveled to get it. This is certainly not a book you can judge by its cover.

"Yakuza Moon" appeals to readers through its shock value. Tendo, daughter of a gang boss in Sakai City, wasn't poor, but reacted to discrimination and school bullying by becoming a scrappy "Yankee," as delinquent kids are called.

By her midteens she was shooting amphetamines and engaging in promiscuous sex, and eventually became a kept women, bounced between two patrons.

Yet she remained touchingly loyal to her family, working as a club hostess to service her father's business debts and assist a sister wed to an incurable gambler.

Tendo's accounts of physical mistreatment at the hands of her father, school peers and male paramours, occur frequently — I stopped counting after 10 — and are presented in graphic detail.

Considering the abuse she received, it's a wonder her face (shown on the book's inner dust jacket) doesn't resemble Sylvester Stallone's after 15 rounds of merciless pummeling by Apollo Creed.

Louise Heal's translation is good, although the dialogue is raw and sprinkled with the f-word. What makes the book most disturbing, however, is not so much Tendo's accounts of her drug trips and beatings, but the way she stands out as one of only a few who succeed in extricating themselves from a permanent underclass where life tends to be short, nasty and brutal. With determination, she prevails against the odds; most of her kind do not.



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