NOVEMBER 2007 – NO. 19
Growing up in the Japanese mob
I was born in the winter of 1968, a yakuza's daughter. I was the third child of four born to my father Hiroyasu and mother Satomi. My brother Daiki was 12 years older, and then came my sister Maki, just two years older than me. Finally there was Natsuki, five years younger than me and the baby of the family. We always called her Na-chan.
We originally lived in Toyonaka, in the north of Osaka, but when I was very young, we moved to a brand new house in Sakai on the other side of the city. It was beautiful house, guarded by double iron gates. Beyond was a winding stone path lined with pink and white azalea bushes that led up to the front door. The house itself was large by Japanese standards — each of us had our own bedroom, and there was also a living room, a dining room, two Japanese-style tatami rooms, and one room where my father ran his business and met with visitors. I remember that the whole house was filled with the scent of fresh timber. Our sitting room looked out onto a large pond in the style of a castle moat, with multicolored koi carp that glided gracefully through the water. We even had a swimming pool where we played all day long throughout the summer. Right outside my bedroom window was a tall flowering cherry tree, which was a kind of friend to me. Whenever I had worries or problems, I used to go and sit under its branches.
Besides being the boss of the local yakuza gang, my dad managed three other businesses: a civil engineering company, a construction firm, and a real estate business. To all of us kids, he was a larger-than-life character. His obsession was cars, and he always owned several brand new models, both Japanese and foreign made, not to mention all the Harleys and other motorcycles. Our garage looked like a car showroom with its perfect array of gleaming polished cars and motorcycles. Of course, he was never satisfied with the basic versions and used to spend his spare time souping them up. If someone else in a hot rod pulled up next to him at a red light, he would rev his engine like a drag racer then floor it the moment the light turned green. My dad at the steering wheel was the stereotypical duck to water. My long-suffering mom would beg him not to drive so fast, but I always got a huge kick from the sensation of speeding.
Every week my family would go out together shopping or to a restaurant. Whenever we left the house, Dad's crocodile skin wallet would bulge as if it had just swallowed a very large prey. Mom would always sit in front of her three-sided mirror to perform the ritual fixing of her hair and meticulous application of makeup. She'd step out clutching a pale pink parasol in her delicate white fingers. I'd hold her other hand and stare at her opal ring that reflected the sunlight in a rainbow of colors. "When you're grown up this will be yours," she'd say, looking at me with a smile.
Dad was extremely busy running his gang and his other businesses, but he would always spend the first week of the New Year with the family. We couldn't wait to dig into my mother's traditional homemade feast: vegetables simmered in soy sauce, thick slice of sweetened omelet, sugared black beans, golden chestnuts steamed with rice, all arranged on three tiers of black lacquerware. On New Year's Day, after we'd eaten, the family would go out to the nearby shrine and say the first prayer of the New Year. We kids would pick a fortune scroll and have our parents read and explain it to us. This was a Tendo family annual ritual. My first New Year's after starting school, Dad came up to me and placed a talisman in the shape of a tiny bell into the palm of my hand.
"This is for you, Shoko."
That talisman felt so warm there in my hand, as if its power reached into the depths of my being. I hung it on my school satchel, and at recess would finger it and listen to the tinkling sound of the little bell, lost in happy New Year's memories.
My parents were always kind, but they were strict about manners. Even our housekeeper was told not to spoil us, and we were never allowed to watch television while eating. We had to give thanks before and after meals, and when we were done, we always had to clear away our own plates. We were brought up the old-fashioned way, but I liked it.
Our home was always filled with lively comings and goings of car salesmen, jewelers, kimono salesmen, tailors, and all sorts of people. It was a fascinating world for a little kid to grow up in.
My grandpa on my dad's side doted on me the most of all his grandchildren. One day, when I was three years old, he was bouncing me on his knee singing, "Shoko, Shoko," and just like that fell asleep. It turned out he had died of a heart attack. Four years later, soon after I started elementary school, my grandma also passed away. After her funeral, we were sitting down to lunch when one of my uncles came over to my father.
"You yakuza scum. You're not getting a penny of the Tendo family's money," he spat.
"The funeral's not even over yet and you're already talking about the money? Fuck off and leave me alone, you bunch of vultures!" my dad roared, and stormed out.
The rest of my relatives sat there with their eyes on the floor. I felt sick that these people could pick a fight about money when my grandma had just died. I remember thinking that Dad might be a yakuza, but this time he was definitely in the right.
A few days later, Dad got into some trouble and was put in jail. We'd never had much to do with our neighbors since moving to the area, but suddenly everyone seemed to be gossiping about us — and all of it was nasty. It was my first experience of discrimination, but it wouldn't be my last.
Once, when I was drawing a picture in front of the house, one of the women in our street came over. She bent down and whispered in my ear, "Shoko-chan, did you know that your big brother isn't your real brother? Your mom had him before she met your dad."
What she said didn't have any effect on how I felt about my brother, but I couldn't understand why someone would tell a child something like that. And the neighborhood children quickly picked up on their parents' attitudes. At school, I was called "the yakuza kid" and treated as an outcast. My elementary school years turned into six years of constant bullying.
There was something that happened when I was in second grade that I'll never forget. It was cleaning time, and it was my group's turn to clean the teacher's room. I was down on my hands and knees wiping the floor, so I was hidden between two desks. When I heard the familiar voice of a teacher who was always kind to me, I pricked up my ears.
"Shoko Tendo? She can draw, and maybe her basic reading and writing's OK, but that's about it. There's not much you can teach an idiot like that."
She sounded disgusted and I saw her toss a sheet of paper onto her desk. The other teachers gather around to look.
"You're not kidding!" the laughed.
It was my recently graded test paper. I might not have done very well on the test, but I'd tried my hardest. Then they caught sight of me standing there stunned, and hurriedly said, "Is the cleaning done? Good job!" With false smiles plastered on their faces, they ushered me out of the teacher's room.
That was how I learned that people can be two-faced, a lesson I never forgot.
From Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter, copyright © 2004 by the author and English translation copyright © 2007 by Louise Heal and reprinted by permission of Kodansha America, Inc.
Back to Top