Nishimura Mako She is a small woman of about fifty, with loose hair and a delicate face. But you soon realize that she is not a traditional Japanese: she has tattoos even on her neck and hands and is missing her little finger. They are signs of belonging to the yakuza, the famous Japanese criminal organization.
The yakuza is dominated by men and only leaves secondary roles for women. Typically, a woman involved in the yakuza can be a anesan, the wife of a boss who takes care of the young members and mediates between them and her husband. The members’ wives and partners support the group peripherally. Some get involved to the point of managing yakuza-owned clubs or dealing drugs.
When I interviewed Nishimura recently as part of my research, he told me that when He became involved with the yakuza, at age 20, took on both roles. But it went one step further: Nishimura is the only woman who has participated in the ceremony sakazuki exchange of sake glasses. This is the ritual that confirms formal membership in a yakuza group.
Join the band
Born into a rigorous family of government officials, Nishimura’s childhood was strict. Her memories revolve around her authoritarian father and the bamboo stick he used to discipline her. During junior high school, she felt the need to escape the yoke of her family. So she befriended fellow rebels and, eventually, biker gangs (bōsozoku) who taught her to fight.
This rebellious streak led her to a young member of the yakuza, who took her under his wing and taught her how to collect protection money, resolve disputes, blackmail, and find girls for prostitution.
His life took a turn when one night he received a call: His friend was in a fight and needed help. She rushed to the rescue and, with a club, turned the scene into a bloodbath. This caught the attention of the head of the local yakuza group, who called her into her office. She told me that she still remembers her words: “Even if you are a woman, you must become a yakuza.”
By then, she had already been in juvenile detention centers several times and her family had given up efforts to save her. She accepted the boss’s invitation and began living the rigorous life of a yakuza apprentice. He enlisted with a cohort of male recruits and eventually became involved in the group’s criminal activities.
Master of finger cutting
Finally, he underwent the ceremony sakazuki dressed in a male kimono, and swore to dedicate her life to the path of the yakuza.
As an affiliate, she ran prostitution and drug businesses, collected debts, and mediated disputes between rival groups. When he cut off his little finger to apologize for a collective mistake in a ritual known as yubitsumehe realized that he was good at it. Members who did not dare carry out the amputation would ask Nishimura to do it for them, earning her the nickname “master of finger cutting.”
But disillusionment overcame Nishimura when he reached his thirties, when Methamphetamine became the main business of his group and his own addiction began to take its toll.. He escaped, although, ironically, he continued to run his meth business independently. In retaliation she was expelled from the group. At that time she began a relationship with a member of a rival group, and a pregnancy prompted her to cut ties with the yakuza world in exchange for a quiet life raising her child.
But, despite his efforts, his yakuza past – marked by his tattoos – prevented him from getting a regular job. She married the father of her son, now a yakuza boss, and returned to the prostitution business and drug trafficking. After a second pregnancy, her fights with her husband became increasingly violent, to the point that the police showed up every time one of hers broke out. They finally divorced and he was left with custody of her two children.
He rejoined his old group, but meth had changed the boss he adored, and within two years he left for good.
Life after crime
Nishimura lived as a male yakuza and retired as such. She found a job in the demolition business and a modest house where she now lives alone. She leads a quiet life, trying to be accepted by the community and help others. With the help of a former yakuza, she also runs a branch of Gojinkai, a charity dedicated to providing housing and help to former yakuza members, ex-convicts, and addicts.
He says, “My day is not complete if I don’t come here at night.” They gather around a table to talk about old times, current difficulties and to see how others are doing. She is still the only woman at the table.
He insists that what earned him respect in an exclusively male world was his capacity for violence: “I was very good at fighting, I never lost to a man.” But Nishimura doesn’t want to be a feminist icon: it wasn’t her intention to break gender stereotypes or advertise herself as the only female yakuza.
There have been other women – such as Taoka Fumiko, widow of a yakuza boss – who, although not formally affiliated, have had a significant impact on the history of the yakuza. But none took a step like that of Nishimura, who became a full member with his little finger cut off.
Their story redefines the boundaries of gender roles and loyalty in the brutal world of Japanese organized crime: a unique journey of identity and belonging.
*The article was originally published in The Conversation – The author is Marie Curie Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Oxford