Why are Japanese gangsters heavily tattooed

The secret life of the Japanese Mafia women - a photo tableau by Chloé Jafé

Little is known about the women of the yakuza. They do not play an active role in the Japanese Mafia organization, but they wear their large tattoos with pride.

Its influence is great, but it operates in secret: the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Naturally, its members lead an already isolated life, but particularly little is known about the everyday life of women in this criminal organization. Many of them ended up in the yakuza by accident, simply because they fell in love with a man who is a member there. Once there, however, women only play a subordinate role.

The French photographer Chloé Jafé has succeeded in gaining access to the closed community and accompanying the women of the yakuza. Jafé moved to Japan especially for this. In order to gain an insight into the scene, she first began to work in the red light district as a hostess in a bar owned by the Yakuza. Jafé was initially unsuccessful.

It wasn't until two years later, just before she was about to give up, that she met an influential yakuza boss by chance at a festival. For their first official meeting, Jafé chose a restaurant that was located between a train station and a police station to be on the safe side. The yakuza boss, says Jafé, then showed up with two bodyguards.

It took her some time to convince him of her plan, she said, but with patience and perseverance she finally succeeded. First she got to know his wife, and little by little she got in touch with other women. The result is the photo work “I give you my life”.

Many Yakuza women have decorated their bodies with large tattoos. Often they use it to express their love for their husband; for many, the tattoos are also an expression of independence and strength. The criminologist Rie Alkemade, who was born and raised in Tokyo, extensively examined the everyday life of the women and friends of the Mafia members in her study “Outsiders amongst outsiders”. Even if they wear the tattoos with pride, they put women in a bind, as Alkemade writes. Since tattoos are frowned upon in Japan, Mafia women consciously set themselves apart from society. They are clearly committed to the yakuza. But there they have little influence, which is why they are twice discriminated against. The yakuza is by definition a man's world; Women are only allowed to make a few decisions in the organization. They are forbidden to invite guests alone, and every woman needed her husband's permission to take the photos. "I give you my life" thus has a double meaning. A woman gives her love, but also gives up her autonomy.

Yakuza literally means “extreme way”. Its origins can be traced back to the Edo period (1600–1868). The organization itself traces its ancestry back to the gambling syndicates of the time. Those who had lost all their belongings at the time or were on the run as criminals often hired the Yakuza, which in addition to accommodation and work also offered something like structure and security.

The yakuza belong to various rival gangs. As with all Mafia organizations, their fields are prostitution, money laundering and gambling, as well as drug and human trafficking. It is also active in the construction industry and in the banking and real estate business; After the tsunami in 2011 and the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the Yakuza is said to have had a hand in disposing of the nuclear waste.

In contrast to other countries, people in Japan know relatively well about the activities of the Mafia organization there; however, their families are a secret. “The yakuza are no more patriarchal than the rest of the country,” says photographer Chloé Jafé. Most women lived like many other Japanese housewives. The group that she accompanied was very much like a family, says Jafé. When the men met to organize money and alcohol, the women took care of the food.

The women of the Japanese mafia are a tight-knit community. Because of the criminal machinations of their men, they usually stay among themselves and form their own subculture. With its values ​​and rules, the yakuza differs fundamentally from western mafia organizations. Women do not play an active role there, but rather support their husbands “out of the shadows”, as criminologist Rie Alkemade writes.

The position of women in the yakuza is determined by the rank of her husband. The wife of the mafia boss still has the greatest influence. She advises him and accompanies new members into the group; some women also take care of the finances. In the past, when the yakuza was primarily active in gambling, and also in the period before and after the Second World War, in rare cases a woman led a gang. Today, however, women are more of a kind of "glue" that holds the bonds together, writes Alkemade.

A distinguishing feature of the Yakuza are the large-scale tattoos, which symbolize patience and perseverance. It often takes years to get them stung. If you can be worked with a needle for so long, so the thought, you can endure pain. Since tattoos are traditionally associated with the yakuza in Japan, people with tattoos are prohibited from entering public baths.

The yakuza is organized in a strictly hierarchical manner; different codes regulate coexistence. This is how the lower-ranking members have to bow, says a mafia boss.

Films about the yakuza have been a genre of their own in cinema since the early 1960s. At that time, the number of members also reached its highest level: around 184,000 Mafiosi worked for the Yakuza. Today the community is in decline. Harder cracks by the police and stricter laws make her work more difficult; In addition, fewer and fewer citizens are willing to tolerate the hustle and bustle of criminal gangs in their neighborhood. In 2018 the mafia had around 30,500 members - a low.

The women in the organization paid a heavy price for their relationship with a Mafioso. Disappeared from the public eye, they have almost given up their independent lives. Chloé Jafé gave them a face with their photos.

Images Chloé Jafé

After more than ten years, this series of images ends the series of photo tableaus that opened a new window onto the world every week. From hot topics to the exquisitely out-of-the-way, from experimental and aesthetic approaches to reportage carried out with risk and exertion, photography here showed that it is state-of-the-art and has the technical skills. We would like to thank the readers who have accompanied us over the long term for their interest. You can find a review of some of the series that have already been published here.

Credits photo tableau 2009-2020: the participating photographers in alphabetical order.

d. Boom, Hossein Fatemi, I. Piccioni, A.