Photography Chloé Jafé

Behind the Yakuza: documenting the women of Japan’s mafia

Photographer Chloé Jafé’s new series lends a voice to the notoriously closed subculture of women associated with the Yakuza

The underworld infamy of organised crime has long been romanticised in pop culture. On the silver screen, cult classics like The Godfather or Goodfellas have shaped the public’s perceptions of what being a mobster means. In 2015, Netflix’s Narcos shifted the focus towards Colombia’s criminal organisations through the story of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

In Japan, organised crime syndicates are deeply embedded in the country’s business affairs and culture. However, stories about the women – the wives, daughters, mistresses, and bar hostesses – that orbit around the criminal activities of the male gangsters are rarely heard of.

This lack of knowledge is what drew photographer Chloé Jafé to her biggest project to date. “命預けます”, or “I give you my life”, which centres around the women of Japan’s Yakuza. “By definition, a Yakuza cannot be a woman,” the French-born image-maker explains over the phone from Tokyo, where she has been living for over five years. “If you are a Yakuza, then you are a man. So, women have a very ambiguous and interesting role.”

For some time, Jafé worked at a hostess club, one of the many Tokyo establishments that almost exclusively cater to men and are known to be owned by the Yakuza. “There is a grey area”, she clarifies, “as hostesses are sometimes the men’s wives or mistresses, but it doesn’t mean that all women working in these bars are working for the Yakuza. Basically, you’re just something that they can use to make money.”

However, Jafé – fluent in Japanese – struggled to gain access, realising that she couldn’t get to know these women unless she met a Yakuza boss. She explains, “The women don’t get to decide whether they want to be photographed or not. This has to come from the husband”.

Ironically, it’s when Jafé quit her job and was closest to giving up on the project that she finally met “the boss”. During a matsuri – the Japanese word for “festival” – a man came up to her and invited her for a drink. He turned out to be the leader of a powerful Yakuza family.

Part of her project also lays bare the women’s “irezumi”, a Japanese tattoo that usually covers part or most of the body. Traditionally associated with Yakuza, this type of design is made by hand with a wooden handle and a needle, and can take years at a time to complete. “They’re very much a proof of patience and endurance,” the photographer reveals. “It’s about how much you can cope with the pain.”

Though they might display unique craftsmanship and creativity, inked bodies still carry a stigma in Japan. “I think there can be some misunderstanding about the presentation of tattoos in my pictures,” Jafé says. “(Tattoos) are really not a fashion statement in Japan. They’re something that is really going to put you outside the box.”

So much so that many institutions still ban tattooed customers. “You can’t go to public baths,” she says. “I have a small tattoo and I have to hide it when I go to the gym.” As a result, tattoo artists are often assimilated to the gang members that they tattoo: “They’re considered outlaws. The government even asks them to get a medical license to be able to tattoo!”

“(Tattoos) are really not a fashion statement in Japan. They’re something that is really going to put you outside the box” – Chloé Jafé

Having the women pose to take snaps of their tattoos was the easiest starting point for the photographer, who said, “They never show (their tattoos) to anyone because they can’t, but they’re quite proud of them.” However, Jafé knew there was more to learn beyond the tattooed bodies.

Slowly, the Yakuza top man introduced Jafé to his wife and others, and Jafé discovered a patriarchal structure where women could fill only a limited number of roles. For the most part, the women were wives or mistresses, and some had even divorced their husbands. She also realised that women married to men in the top ranks of the organisation have a female bodyguard. It was here that Jafé met Yumi, who was responsible for the security of the boss’s wife.

Despite this, wives don’t have any real power within the gang. In her thesis, criminology academic Rie Alkemade, points out: “Unlike Western mafia wives, Yakuza wives remain outside the sphere of criminal activity in this organised crime structure, remaining in the passive emotionally and financially supportive role.”

Love and pride are recurrent themes in the series. For the most part, Jafé explains, the wives have no previous connection to the underground world, they simply fell in love with a man that happened to be a gangster. Regardless of their position in the hierarchy, all the women unite in their unreserved commitment to the Yakuza – they “give their life” to the mob.

Because of their husbands’ illegal occupations, wives tend to live as a closed community. “Usually they stay together between wives because they have to live a secret life,” Jafé says. “They’re not really connected to women outside these circles.” The photographer ended up immersing herself in what seemed like an all-female, “sub-subculture” of sorts within the male-dominated world of Yakuza clans.

“I was a woman trying to understand another woman,” she reflects, which is why her photographs are accompanied by text in Japanese and in English. “It was important for me to have an exchange with them so I invited the women to write me letters about their tattoos.” Women share their own experiences of Yakuza life: those who live for it and those who have briefly brushed past it. A handwritten note by “Yuko”, a daughter of the Yakuza, reads: “The reason I got tattoos is that I wanted to discourage certain guys from approaching me. I want to live my life independently without relying on a man; this was the thought that encouraged me to start getting tattoos. I was 38... for the remainder of my life, I’ve decided I want to live independently and on my own. For me, my back tattoo is something of pride and also something that guards and protects me.”

“For me, it became more of a human experience than just photography, because there was a curiosity coming from both sides,” Jafé adds. “I think they thought it was crazy that a French woman wanted to know more about them.”

In November, Japanese publisher Akio Nagasawa – which has published the work of photographers Daidō Moriyama and William Klein – will release the series as a book, titled I give you my life.

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