The artist who entered the underworld of the Japanese mafia to portray their women

The month-long trip took her from total indifference to fascination with Japanese culture

It all started one drunken night 15 years ago in a Paris bar.

«My friend and I were devastated because we had broken up with our partners.

We drank a lot of wine and said, ‘let’s go far, to Japan‘, although it could have been anywhere else, “photographer Chloé Jafé (Lyon, 1984) explains to BBC Mundo.

The month-long trip took her from total indifference to fascination with Japanese culture. She decided to repeat: «on my second trip I thought, ‘next time I’ll stay. She felt that she had something to do here, although she did not know what ».
By immersing himself in Japanese content, from old samurai movies to series, novels and comics, he began to feel attracted to the underworld of organized crime that in Japan embodies the yakuza. “In a way, it’s sexy,” she says.

Women in a world of men
Divided into groups or syndicates like the Italian mafia, the yakuza operate all kinds of criminal businesses, from gambling, drugs, and prostitution to loansharking, extortion rings, and white collar crimes.

Its name comes from the numbers 8, 9, 3 (pronounced in Japanese ya, ku, sa), which make up the worst possible card play, which is why its members consider it derogatory and prefer gokudo (“the extreme path”). ) or ninkyo dantai (“honorable or chivalrous organization”).

Although its origin dates back to the 17th century, the yakuza lived its splendor in the second half of the 20th century, when the underworld flourished in the heat of the dizzying economic development of the country after World War II.

Yet the modernization of Japanese society and police persecution have decimated the yakuza, whose more than 200,000 members in the early 1960s fell to just over 12,000 last year, according to law enforcement estimates. And they all have something in common: they are men.

“I saw that there were no women and I wondered why. ‘Surely there must be women,’ I thought, only they don’t talk about it.

Chloé Jafé discovered “Yakuza Moon”, Shoko Tendo’s autobiographical novel that recounts her difficult adolescence as the daughter of a Japanese gangster.

“I felt very close to that reality and I said to myself: ‘this is my job, I have to meet these women and do something visual together'”.

At the end of the book he decided to buy another ticket to Japan, this time to stay and portray the women of the yakuza.

a decisive encounter

At the beginning of 2013, he settled in Tokyo without contacts or knowledge of Japanese, a language that is difficult to learn, among other things because its writing combines three completely different alphabets.

«It was my project and I am very stubborn. He didn’t know how, but he had to do it. I knew it wasn’t going to happen soon, but I was happy to dedicate myself to it without counting the days.

Two years passed before, with an acceptable level of Japanese, she got a job as a hostess.

Hostesses or kyabajo (“cabaret girls”) entertain nightclub patrons, usually middle-aged or older men, by making conversation, singing karaoke songs, pouring drinks, and lighting cigarettes. Chloé defines them as “a kind of modern geisha”.

“I got completely involved with those women. Some had a boyfriend or a father in the yakuza, and also those clubs are usually run by that mafia. It was a good starting point to get into that world », she recalls.

However, his final opportunity came during the day, in the middle of the street and by chance during the Sanja Matsuri Shinto festival in the traditional Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa.

“Without knowing how, I ended up down the street from a yakuza boss. She was sitting and he appeared dressed in a kimono and two bodyguards. I did not know who he was, although it seemed important ».

He was an oyabun or capo of the Japanese mafia. He invited her to her table and she kept her phone number under the guise of sending him the photos of the festival.

“I sent him the photos and invited him to dinner a few days later. For him it was a surprise and I, honestly, was terrified.

inside the yakuza

Breaking with the Japanese tradition that reserves all initiative to the male, she chose the restaurant (“near a police station and a subway station, in case she had to run”) and there she found him with his bodyguards.

Although she already spoke decent Japanese, she preferred to confess her intentions to him on a paper note: “I am a French photographer and I want to take images of women in the mafia in your country, respectfully and taking the necessary time, for which I need your help. ».

The response was positive: “He told me, ‘Look, I can introduce you to people from Hokkaido to Okinawa.'” That is, from north to south in the elongated geography of Japan. Although the artist first had to gain the trust of the boss and her environment.

“He played with me for a while. He saw that he was young and pretty, and he thought whether he could use me for something or not, check what my intentions were… in short, put me to the test». Gradually, they began to invite her to yakuza events and gatherings.

«His bodyguards picked me up and I didn’t know where we were going to meet, it was like a movie. For a while I asked him things but he didn’t answer me. There were tense moments.”

The oyabun’s wife, who initially mistrusted her, ended up taking her in and invited her to spend the New Year’s holiday with her family.

He met the wife of another boss, whom he took the first photos of the project, and expanded his contacts in the yakuza with new women to photograph.

“This is horrible, but… I suspect that some people who might not have wanted to be photographed had to pose for me, because I was friends with the boss,” she confesses.

The first sessions in Tokyo were followed by many others in various places in Japan, such as Osaka and the subtropical archipelago of Okinawa.

Precisely in Okinawa, where the criminal underworld prospered in the 20th century around the largest US air base in the region, one of the series of Chloé Jafé’s trilogy, “Okinawa mon amour”, takes place, which shows the darkest and most marginal side of the islands.

The tattoos

The artist’s lens gives special prominence to the tattoos of yakuza women.

«The Japanese mafia is interesting because it is closely linked to traditional Japanese culture, as in the case of tattoos, which are related to mythology. It’s almost a cultural mafia », he says.

And, although today it is not uncommon to see people with a dragon or a snake on their skin anywhere in the world, in Japan the culture of tattoos and their perception is completely different.

“There the tattoos are not made to show them,” explains Chloé.

Japanese society repudiates tattoos by linking them to crime and marginality, to the point that it is forbidden to display them in swimming pools and certain public places.

For the yakuza, they symbolize loyalty to the group and also resistance to pain, since they are usually made with the traditional method of a wooden stick and needles, which is slower and sharper.