Yakuza Wives

Mirror Magazine, Sept 2004

Life After The Mob: Women who force their husbands to leave the mafia.

Yakuza-Wives Yakuza-Wives-1

“I was so lonesome and he was fresh out of prison so I guess we both needed kindness and love.”

Mariko Suzuki sips her green tea in a small office on the outskirts of Tokyo, reminiscing about the day she met her husband, the gangster. It was twenty years ago, barely two years after she first arrived in Japan from Korea, and she was working as a bar hostess, pouring drinks and occasionally singing in the cabaret. Pretty and petite at 33 – she’s 52 now and still remarkably well preserved – Mariko made good money, much of which she sent home to support her parents. But she was desperately alone.

“I had been single for two years when I met Hiroyuki, he was actually my first boyfriend in Japan,” she says. “Of course I knew he was a gangster – they were regulars at the club, all the girls knew – but he seemed different. He had a kind face, he was always smiling. Only later did I realise that he only showed this face in public. In private he was a very violent and dangerous man.”

She flicks through an early 80s photoalbum, mostly shots of glammed-up hostess girls and organised criminals hanging out in bars – you wouldn’t know from looking at them, just a bunch of men in suits, but then Mariko points out people she knows, smirking at some of the younger underbosses posing in their shades. She pauses at a picture of her wedding, in which the happy couple are covered in confetti and beaming at the camera. “Even while I was marrying him,” she sighs, “I knew I had to divorce him.”

But she didn’t. Instead, for the next decade, Mariko was the wife of a middle-ranking Yakuza or Japanese Mafioso – she was literally married to the Mob. Wealthy but unloved, pampered but trapped, she enjoyed the consolations of ill-gotten furs, diamonds and champagne, but suffered the same loneliness that made her reach out to Hiroyuki in the first place. For all her furs, her marriage was loveless and often abusive – she would have left him long ago were she not so afraid of what he might do.

Then their life together took a dramatic turn –  Hiroyuki found God, gave up crime and metamorphosed from a violent criminal into a pastor, a change that Mariko not only supported, but demanded. And though their income diminished from $40,000 per month to a paltry $1,600 – gone were the luxuries, the carats and the big apartment – their marriage has flourished and Mariko has finally found happiness. To this day, they live a quiet, law-abiding life in the suburbs with their twelve year old daughter Anna. If Mariko’s story has any lessons – and her story resonates with several other wives whose husbands went the gangster-to-pastor route – it is that money really can’t buy you happiness, after all, it can just make misery bearable.

The Japanese Yakuza is an organised criminal syndicate akin to the Sicilian Mafia. Though fractured into competing gangs and a patchwork of fiercely guarded territories, it still wields immense power throughout the country, and has a fearsome reputation. Like the Mob, its staple industries are gambling, protection, drugs and prostitution; it has long-held ties with the cops and the judiciary; and though it proliferates in cities, it still reaches the smallest hamlets.In many ways, however, the Yakuza differs significantly from the Godfather model. It is more overt, for example – Yakuza clubs or headquarters are often denoted by signs outside, and members, like Hiroyuki, are distinguished by elaborate tattoos all over the upper body which stop abruptly at the cuff and collar so that they can move incognito in society. (Still today in Japan, a tattoo denotes membership of a criminal subculture, and many bars, public baths and clubs will not permit tattooed customers).

The most chilling sign of a Yakuza, however, is his truncated fingers. The Yakuza abide by strict codes of honour, respect, hierarchy and sacrifice – they are often compared to the Samurai in this respect – and they observe a custom called ‘Yubizume’ whereby those who fall foul of their bosses are obliged to cut off one joint of a finger and offer it to their superior as an apology. Hiroyuki himself has chopped both his pinkies down to useless stumps, the cumulation of three separate mistakes. The first time he merely answered the phone incorrectly.

“I was 18 and this lady called the office,” he explains, sitting beside Mariko on the office couch, “and I made the mistake of saying ‘is this the lady from Osaka?’ when it was the lady from Hiroshima – my boss had mistresses all over Japan – so you can imagine what happened. I had to cut off the first joint of my little finger. The second time was a gambling debt that I could not pay, and the third time too. But instead of chopping my left finger off completely, I cut my other little finger at the second join so that both fingers could be the same size.” He holds up the backs of his hands, so that his two stumps are side by side. “I didn’t want to spoil my golf swing.”

It is hard to imagine this small, animated, greying fifty year old as a brutal gang enforcer who ran corrupt casinos in the Osaka region, but then his transformation in recent years has been as extreme as his criminal past. In 1990, he was reborn as a Christian, and gave up everything – drugs, crime, alcohol and violence. He went to seminary school, became a pastor and launched Mission Barabbas in 1992, a Christian church dedicated exclusively to ex-Yakuza who wish to repent and reform. It is strictly forbidden to leave the Yakuza and Suzuki has dodged five attempts on his life since going straight – “yes, I have been shot at,” he says, calmly “and I know that there are still people who would like me dead. But that is true for many of us here.”

There are eight ex-Yakuza pastors in Mission Barabbas, some of whom once owned whole chunks of Tokyo’s swishest business districts, which is rather like owning a block of Mayfair in London. Now, however, the criminal life is behind them. Where once they would have met in exclusive nightclubs, spending millions of Yen on fine wine and loose women, today they congregate in a small, makeshift church in a drab, grid burb called Funabashi, the Neasden of Tokyo. Where Pastor Suzuki and his wife Mariko now sit, telling their story.
“I would not be here today, if it was not for my wife,” says Hiroyuki, passionately. “She helped me change, she taught me forgiveness. Not just me but every pastor at Mission Barabbas – we all owe our wives our lives.”

Mariko accepts the praise with a gracious smile. “If he [ital] didn’t change,” she says, gently, “our marriage would not have survived. He was a long way from ‘husband material’.”
In the ‘bad old days’, as Mariko calls them, her husband’s spousal CV was about as bad as it gets. A veteran of two ruptured marriages, roughly five years a piece, he had two children whom he scarcely saw or supported, 15 bruiser henchmen, a lucrative gambling racket, a long string of mistresses, a spiralling heroin habit and a vicious temper – that kind face she first fell for would often contort into blind rage. Even while they were courting, Hiroyuki would cheat on her, and soon after they were married, he began to abandon her for weeks at a time, beating her upon his every return, even when she became pregnant.

While Mariko frankly unfurls his sins, one by one, Hiroyuki self-consciously stacks bibles on a shelf in his office. As a testifying pastor he is used to facing his sins in public, indeed it is part of his atonement – but it’s a shaming toll nevertheless. “Yes, it’s true,” he says, meekly. “I did many truly terrible things.” Suddenly tears spring from his eyes and Mariko reaches tenderly for his hand. “How she can forgive me for the beatings, I do not know. I would beat her sometimes until the bones in my hand would break.”

Hiroyuki’s criminal career unravelled badly toward the end. His heroin use made him a sloppy caretaker of his gambling rackets, and after one mistake too many, he wound up on the run from an assassin’s bullet, owing $500,000 and going crazy with paranoia. For much of this time, Mariko was left alone at home, awaiting his explosive return, as afraid to leave as she was to stay. (Now that Hiroyuki has reformed, she says she loves and respects her husband and that even as he beat her “I always knew that behind the villain was a decent and sensitive soul.” But at the time, her fear of him was all-embracing. Even when another Yakuza kidnapped her – he took her hostage for a few days, thought better of it and returned her – Mariko refused to tell Hiroyuki for fear that he would go on a murderous rampage and wind up either in dead or in jail.)

Then Hiroyuki hit a suicidal ebb and sought refuge in a church where he broke down before the priest, blurting out his whole story. He experienced an epiphany and when the priest advised him to return to Mariko, the only strong influence in his life, he dutifully arrived on her doorstep, utterly humbled and helpless.

“And do you know what she said to me? After everything that I had done?” Hiroyuki’s voice trembles with drama. “‘Come in, you must be hungry’! She forgave me!”

A capacity to forgive the most stomach-churning abuses is perhaps the most remarkable characteristic that the wives of Mission Barabbas share. But they have plenty more in common, too. Lee Sung Ae, for example, is another ex-hostess from Korea, another Christian, who found herself alone in Japan, struggling with the language and falling in with gangsters – in her case, the roaring and ungainly Tetsuo Nakajima, a boss so senior he didn’t have to wear the trademark tattoos. (Nakajima had the advantage of starting high up in the organisation since his brother was, and remains, a high-ranking crime boss. Hiroyuki, however, let slip that the real reason he doesn’t wear the tattoos is because his mother asked him: ‘I already have one tattooed son, please not both.’) Nakajima was several ranks above Suzuki in the Yakuza hierarchy. He had at least 100 men beneath him to Suzuki’s 15, and he owned several legitimate businesses to hide behind. His digits are intact, too – “bosses don’t lose their fingers,” he laughs, “they collect them!”

Like Mariko, Lee Sung is quite matter-of-fact about her “hellish” years with Tetsuo and how she wanted to divorce him on several occasions, but was prevented each time by the fear of ‘being revenged’. And just as Mariko was responsible for turning her husband’s life around – she refused to take him in unless he started going to church – Lee Sung was responsible for her husband’s turnaround. As Hiroyuki says, “it’s the wives who showed us how to love and forgive.”

Neither Mariko nor Lee Sung, however, were ever that keen on their husbands – though they have grown to love them now – not even in the first bloom of their relationships. There is no talk of whirlwind romances among the Barabbas wives – love, as it says on Ike Turner’s business card, ain’t got a damn thing to do with it. While Mariko shrugs off the idea, saying “I didn’t really love [Hiroyuki], I never thought I would marry him”, Lee Sung is unsparing: “I only went with him for the money. That was it. He wasn’t my type, but he gave me lots of presents and cash, fur coats, diamonds, everything. I drove Porsches, a BMW, a Benz, a Jaguar, and our cost of living was 10mY ($100,000) per month! It’s incredible really, I could buy whatever I wanted but still I wasn’t happy.”

Now 41, Lee Sung is a relative pauper, though her necklace glitters with precious stones, her wristwatch is a Cartier. Like Mariko she is happy to have her husband back, to have a stable family home – “these things are what are important, this is what I have learned,” she says worthily. These days their income comes from the movie business – Tetsuo, at her prompting, established a movie production company which last year released Christ Is My Boss, a feature film based upon the stories of Barabbas members. It was only a moderate success, despite having high production values but then Tetsuo’s crime boss brother from the swanky Ginza business district of Tokyo has been ‘supportive’ of Mission Barabbas since its inception. “He doesn’t send us money,” says Lee Sung, quickly, with a flick of her hair. “He just wishes us well.”

Yet surely the girls were attracted by more than just money – what about the thrill of dating a gangster, the allure of the hard man, outlaw and protector? Lee Sung laughs. “Protector? I needed protection from him! I knew that people feared my husband but that meant little to me. You see, I also knew that he was cheating on me from day one. He always had mistresses. What good is a protector if he’s never at home?”

Of all their husbands’ sins it is the philandering that seems to have most rankled with the wives. Lee Sung, for example, was less concerned with the details of her husband’s criminal life – despite the ever-present risk of jail or the violent reprisal of rival gangs – and more anxious about his endless mistresses (Nakajima claims to have had 10 or more at a time, scattered all over the country). “They used to call the house all the time,” she says, “and he would be away for three or four days at a time. It was so obvious, but he always denied it. When he came home I would just lock myself away, I couldn’t bear to see him.”

She never dared cheat on her husband, herself. Instead she would binge shop with the other wives, stocking up on minks and Manolo Blahniks. “Yes, we used to shop for therapy, I suppose. But I wanted my husband, not another fur! Sometimes when we were all together, we would take our husbands’ pants from the cupboard and put one hand on them and pray that he would not be able to, you know, have sex.” It’s an unusual image – glammed up wives praying that Jesus afflict their villainous husbands with erectile dysfunction – but then life as a Yakuza’s other half was rarely normal.

Perhaps strangest of all is that several of the wives were not even aware that their husbands were gangsters in the early days. Mariko knew and Pastor Suzuki was upfront, but it took Lee Sung two years, for example, before she realised that Tetsuo was a senior crime boss. “I thought he ran golf clubs, that’s what he told me,” she says, shaking her head. “Maybe I was naïve, maybe I didn’t want to admit it. I always saw packets of drugs around the kitchen – I knew Nakajima took them, but I didn’t think of him as a drug dealer. And we always had so many samurai swords wrapped in towels around the house. I used to think they were just for display, I didn’t realise they were stolen.” The turning point came when her house was raided by some 40 cops looking for guns. Was she not scared? “No, not really. I never thought about prison, because I didn’t know what Nakajima was up to. He never told me anything.”

From the Barabbas wives, a picture emerges of life as a Yakuza’s other half – a lonely, isolated life of abuse and disregard in which the wives were excluded from virtually all aspects of their husband’s affairs, and yet were unable to leave. Not only did they not know where their husbands were sleeping at night, but they were actively shielded from Yakuza business and to this day, many do not know quite what their husbands got up to in their gangster days. Mariko says that Hiroyuki has not killed anyone in his past, because in his new Christian life, he would have confessed – but at the time, she wasn’t sure.

Ultimately it was this separation between wives and business, rather like the Sopranos, that undermined their marriages and corroded what trust or mutual respect may once have existed. And yet, this divide between the business and the family is virtually a commandment in the Yakuza. As male-dominated a society as Japan clearly is – young girls are wildly fetishized, mistresses are commonplace, prostitution and pornography are so widespread as to make a Dutchman blush – the Yakuza, for whom prostitution is a mainstay moneyspinner, is its unrepentant extreme. It is run entirely by men, and women play no part whatsoever. Only the boss’ wife is given any recognition – she’s addressed as ‘ane-san’ which means ‘older sister’ – yet even she has no decisive role for the faux-chivalrous excuse that too much knowledge might be a dangerous thing, and the last thing an honorable gangster wants to do is put the mother of his children at risk. The truth, however, is more unsavory.

“The Yakuza do not trust women,” says Pastor Suzuki, “they don’t believe that women are strong enough to withstand interrogation by the police or by enemy gangs. For the Yakuza, women are supposed to be mothers and wives who should stay at home and take care of the family, not meddle in a man’s business. It’s old fashioned, I know, but the Yakuza is like the Samurai. You must be ready and willing to die for your boss, courage is the most important thing. And they believe that women are weak and that they do not have this courage.”
Pastor Suzuki looks to Mariko and rests his hand tenderly on her shoulder. “Now I know what real courage is.”