Yakuza Women

-by Tyler McPeek

This is the fifth article in my yakuza series.  I’ve decided to address the issue of yakuza women.  As always, I’m speaking from my personal experiences, but I’m also trying to dispel some of the misconceptions as best I can and to address the topic honestly and have fun with it if possible.  See earlier articles for further disclaimer on this article series being best regarded as "fictional memoir."

An account of women in the yakuza, at this point in time and form my point of view (see earlier articles in the yakuza series for caveats on the non-research oriented and personal nature of my accountings), can only be composed of individual case studies, as the path to being a woman who runs with the yakuza is not standardized or usually membership oriented.  It’s an informal and organic process that lands a woman in a yakuza pack.  A woman’s status with the yakuza can be girlfriend, wife, prostitute, mistress, near member, any various sort of employee, a member of a female counterpart gang, groupie, or victim.  Though honor and faux notions of bushido chivalry can be deeply engrained in the psyche and creed of various gangs, their bosses, and their senior members, respect for women generally is very low.  Women are tools, subordinates, possessions, mothers, daughters, homemakers, and slaves.  It’s a paradox of course, but when you are among the yakuza, the women that you encounter are subservient, yet tough, compelling, and powerful.  Sometimes they are sad and obviously victimized, but others seem to have a taste for the debauchery, the lifestyle, the organization, and the ceremony.  Being successful as a mama-san (chief, possibly part owner of a hostess club) or chi-mama (manager or head hostess of a club) almost always routinely involves some business and personal relationship with the local organizations.  It can be a shortcut to funding, protection, security, and solid financial management.  To run a stable of hostesses is to be part of the night life that is the yakuza’s playground.  For prostitutes or clubs that run soft prostitution (sanctioned and priced menus, verbal or written, of sexual touching, feel-ups, fingering, hand jobs, and oral sex) or for full-blown soapland or other all-the-way brothels, nearly always means the women and management are owned to a degree by the yakuza.  The same can be true for host bars or male prostitutes, but the numbers are dwarfed by the female sex and companionship trade.  In any case, the male trade is not the focus of this article.

I’ll outline the case studies of 4 different women that I have known that can be regarded as being as representative of yakuza women as any.  One is a chi-mama, we’ll call “Chie;” one is a yakuza daughter, born into the life, that we’ll name “Momoko;” another is a club owner that I’ll refer to as “Mami;” and the last is a brothel owner and ex-prostitute that we’ll lend the nom de guerre of “Katsumi” to.  Chie was the girlfriend of a local yakuza boss’ elder son and first in line to the boss’ title if he could prove himself in leadership and hold on to the title past the death or otherwise permanent sidelining or retirement of his father.  As long as his father was alive and active, regardless of whether the father was officially retired or not, the son’s position would not be challenged, as the father was tough as nails and had been in leadership for some time.  Everybody was making money and the money was being paid appropriately up the chain to the prefectural organization.  The son was of moderate talent as a manager, but kept some weak friends as lieutenants and had an uncertain long term future as local boss after his father passed out of the picture, which could be 5, 10, or even more years in the future, depending on the health of the 70 year old father.  The son was a predictable philanderer, enjoying time with prostitutes and other sexual encounters with club girls, but he also kept 2 more serious girlfriends in separate towns, one or the other of which he was likely to marry at some point.  Chie was one of those 2 girls and met him many nights after work.  She was willing to have affairs, but only oblivious drunk men or glutton for punishment gaijin might be willing to venture into such an undertaking.  She was treated essentially like a possession, and had been used in some nasty ways at the son’s discretion on several occasions of interest.  At a private party in a friend’s snack bar one night, she told me about how he had passed her around to some gang members at a drug party one night.  I thought maybe I had misunderstood the term “yari-mawatta” at first, so I confirmed.. she was passed around in a circle for sex in full view of the others, maybe 6 or 7 men.  It’s not the only time that I have been surprised by some skewed notions of love and jealousy in the organization that aren’t in-line with normal men’s thinking.  I knew the son casually, and Chie well.  It was sometimes surreal to hear the same stories from both of them on different occasions and play dumb.  At first I thought the son might have come after me if he found out about my personal relationship with Chie, but truthfully I couldn’t say whether he even would have cared or not if he had known, though I believe he loved her in his way and might well be married or at least have a child with her by now.

Momoko’s father was a retired yakuza from southern Kyushu with full-body tattoos and one missing finger.  He had bought his way out of the syndicate down south and moved north to be out of site and out of mind in early retirement.  He had never risen farther than mid-level lieutenant in a small city and had retired a bit too early, early enough that it likely cost him the finger he was missing (though I never asked if that was why he had to cut it or not–guess the time was never right..) and all of his money to get out.  He lived quietly, working part time in a non-yakuza position as a back-up musician in a hotel and living mostly off of his wife’s full time employment in a regional grocery store chain.  He was a decent father, though a reckless and regular gambler in the back room mahjong parlors in the area.  But it’s hard to hide full body tattoos, a missing thumb, and a Kyushu gangster dialect from your children past an early age when they come to understand the significance of such things.  This is why a soldier rarely retires.  Since he can’t escape the stigma of his brands, it is better to keep working and stay in the area where his affiliation is active and meaningful, allowing the soldier to enjoy the benefits, and not only the negative stigma that goes with the job and aura.  As a result of his inescapable identity as a gangster (though I believe he had probably bought his way out from down south, not only out of personal motivations or a lackluster rank for his age, but out of a romantic notion of sparing his children somehow), his youngest son was in jail for theft and assault and his oldest son had disappeared to Tokyo as a salaryman, never speaking to his father and hardly ever to his mother for several years now.  His only daughter, Momoko, was a smart and mostly normal girl, but she did work in a club and seemed unlikely to escape that line of work in the long run, though she had worked in offices of different sorts for short periods of time, before always returning to the easy money and fast times of nighttime employment.  She was very attractive, but she maintained a level of respectability it seemed to me, going on dohan (arranged dates, usually before work for dinner or shopping, after which the hostess and the customer go to the girl’s work together, where she’s permitted to arrive late since she is bringing a customer with her) occasionally and entertaining regular customers with zeal, accepting gifts, but never engaging in any outright prostitution, soft or hard.

Momoko was cute as a button and had been using her looks and charm to make her one of the most successful hostesses in town and clearly the top grossing employee at almost every club she worked at since she was 17.  Having her on your arm for a few hours of drinking out on the town always drew envious stares from men and even from women.  The last I checked on her, she was still maintaining a fresh, cute, highly desirable and untouchable little girl image well into her mid-twenties.  I prefer to remember her that way, though I know it’s only a matter of time before her maturing looks catch up with her and she moves into management, though I know she would resist that role.  She was constantly getting very expensive gifts bought for her by customers that she mostly exchanged for cash while they were still fashionable, and she lived well.  She made 5 to 10 thousand dollars a month between her salary, cash tips or gifts (which are not at all standard in that business, but were for her), commissions from her employer on bottles of Dom Perignon and high end Cognacs (she loved to drink in any case and could hold her liquor well–though she actually preferred beer or Korean soju–ironic since I knew her to be an ardent nationalist party supporter in private, who hated Koreans and Chinese, though that wouldn’t stop her from taking money or gifts from an admiring Korean zainichi pachinko owner customer in the clubs), and reselling high end European handbags and jewelry, after appearing in front of the customer with them once or twice before selling them in near new condition to brand name recycle shops in the nearby city, while they were still in fashion and in new condition.  Though she made thousands a month doing this, she would have had to do it in any case, because of the regular flow of gifts coming in from customers new and old.  They piled up in her closet if she didn’t make regular trips to resale shops.  Due to Momoko’s family background, she had certain contrary traits to her cute, young image.  For one, she drank ferociously at times and had absolutely no regard for the law or the police.  Though she had customers in the city hall and even police captains, she considered them to be subordinates to her, since they lived on tax money, and she told them how she felt frequently.  In turn, they thought her honesty was cute (they would only have taken such treatment from a face like hers, with those strawberry lips and whispering eyes), and she skated on DUI and traffic offenses, despite her known family, because of this.  As I’ve said in earlier posts, known yakuza are frequently held to a higher standard for petty crimes by police and given longer prison sentences than normal citizens, even shunned by the daytime, wider community in uncomfortable ways–such was the fate of her brothers, though they had no affiliation in reality, but because of who their father was.

Mami owned a small but high end club.  She managed nearly all of the finances independently, but did have a yakuza sponsor to answer to.  She had been in a female gang when she was a teenager, was street smart like no woman I have ever encountered in Japan or elsewhere else, and knew the bar and hostessing business well.  She was a mizu-shobai queen (I’ll be explaining the particulars of the highly complex water trade in my next post), who made far more money with a small club than most could.  Her partner took a large cut of the profits, but respected her as a type of junior, unofficial affiliate of the organization.  Women don’t hold official positions in the syndicate that I’ve seen, Lucy Liu’s fictional kimono clad yakuza boss character in Kill Bill aside.  She was a knockout at 32 and had a large dragon tattoo running down her back from her left shoulder blade, past her pelvis and onto the top of her right buttocks, with traditional cherry and plum blossom floral designing throughout.  I know that sounds like a cliché yakuza bijin, but she was the prototype on which characters are based, not a caricature of one.  She was graceful, competent and one of the few women I’ve seen treated as an equal by many of the local gangsters, though she had a tough history and many faults below the surface, from bad relationships with street soldiers to a stint as a kept mistress, to minor bouts with drug addiction, though it seemed always to be on her own terms somehow.  Her path to the yakuza life was about as near to a male soldier’s path as it could be.  She had been a member of a female gang from about the ages of 13 to 17.  I knew some other girls that had been in the same gang with her, which had about 10-15 members at any given time.  They ran with the motorcycle gangs in the area, many of whom later went into the organization, so she had been connected since the time she dropped out of high school.  She was trusted with inside shop talk on the drug trade and other scams, which made her shop valuable real-estate for drinking and open talk about work, though that also drove away other customers at times.  Still, she handled it all well, booking different crowds at different hours, staying profitable, professional.  She drove a white Mercedes AMG convertible, a gift from her sponsor and chief customer.  I knew that she used it to run certain errands for some of the higher-ups that she knew well, I had gone on a few ride-alongs.  She was about as close to a true, multi-tasking, tattooed and true yakuza member of the female sex as I’ve known.  She came up through the ranks from a teenage gang, made money within the organizations, and paid up the ladder.  She was looked out for by fellow members and respected, but would never hold official rank or sit in on official ceremonies, unless she was serving drinks–such was the tradition and nature of the syndicate.

Katsumi, the last case I’ll mention in this article, was in her early 70s and ran a brothel in a popular onsen town tourist destination, but outside of the red light district, set back from a farming road, against the edge of a forest, like a small mountain inn.  She had been in the game for a long time, never married, though with one daughter, and was a jovial manager for and part owner of the traditional brothel, where only one aging yakuza soldier worked as a driver and security man, dressed in a black suit, in his late fifties, shuttling the costumers back and forth from town.  Many of the customers were locals or visiting clients of local businessmen.  Few tourists made their way to her old Japanese house in the forest, and that was her business niche and her establishment’s appeal in an otherwise tourist dominated industry for that area.  Katsumi was a widower with a mysterious background.  She had come from Kyoto many years back and was very old school.  She had bought her way into the business with an inheritance from her late husband.  My sense was that he was a businessman who did business with the yakuza in the Kansai region and married Katsumi (an ex-prostitute from Kyushu who used to be a favorite of American sailors at the Sasebo base near Nagasaki).  At that time she was running a small hostess bar in Kyoto.  In any case, I used to drink together with Katsumi all over town.  She loved the mid-level host bars, but humored me by treating me at the high end cabaret clubs near the hot spring hotels, where we would dress as tourists, in the hotel kimonos with wooden geta slippers and drink and hear about her stories of old Kyushu well into the morning hours.  So many great nights were spent dancing with the girls, then going back to have large rowdy private enkai parties with the prostitutes on the upper floors of the hotels, overlooking the water.  That was their downtime, and Katsumi paid for everything.  I was the only man, and it was wild, wild times with the brothel girls raising hell in private tatami rooms, drinking sake and talking about the customers from that week.  I learned a lot about the lifestyle and experiences of prostitutes from those girls.  They were all from somewhere else, and they led very private night lives.  Most of them were spending all their money on frivolous things, but many others were saving to finance business opportunities or debts back home.  They were far more responsible prostitutes than I knew from the cities.  The country atmosphere and Katsumi seemed to have a good effect on them, “wholesome” prostitutes if you will.

Katsumi looked like she was in her 40s and drank like she was in her 30s, though she was in her 70s.  She spoke a Kansai dialect with just a touch of old Nagasaki.  She was charming, and her girls and customers loved her.  She was a local fixture and treated by hotel staff as though she was in the hotel business, though she was looked at askance by the locals during the day.  She was a good friend and a genuine local character, though she also knew how to deal with out of line customers, and her kindly and quiet driver carried a small revolver in his pocket that he seemed quiet comfortable showing me with a wink one night when I asked him how he handled drunk gangsters who hit the girls.
So that’s it, 4 yakuza girls out of many that I’ve known well and seem to represent a fair cross-section of the females that identify with the syndicate.  There are many women dodging in and out of the world for excitement and fast money, but the life usually leaves it’s mark, even after a short time.  There are many people whose job it is to scout women and recruit “normal girls” into yakuza run businesses.  Rape, abuse, exposure to drugs and prostitution usually follows.  The women who survive and earn respect in that world are normally smart, tough, and/or practically born into it with good instincts and certain protections in place for survival.  The average Japanese woman thankfully knows nothing about the yakuza world apart from movies, news reports, and an occasional glimpse of a black luxury vehicle with tinted windows and a black suited driver trolling along through the bar districts at night.  More to come, stay tuned and thanks for reading!

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