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Mako Nishimura, bottom left, is the only woman to ever formally join a yakuza gang as a full member. Image: Martina Baradel
crime

‘I never lost a fight against a man’: The story of the only woman to join Japan’s notorious yakuza

56 Comments
By Martina Baradel

Mako Nishimura is a petite woman in her late 50s, with flowing hair and a delicate face. But you soon notice that she is no traditional Japanese lady – she is tattooed up to her neck and hands and her little finger is missing. These are signs of affiliation to the yakuza – Japan’s notorious criminal syndicates.

The yakuza is dominated by men and leaves only informal roles to women. Typically a woman involved with the yakuza might be an anesan, a boss’ wife who takes care of young affiliates and mediates between them and her husband. Wives and partners of the members support the group in a peripheral way. Some get involved to the extent that they manage yakuza-owned clubs or deal drugs.

When I interviewed Nishimura recently as part of my research, she told me that when she had become involved with the yakuza at 20, she took up both roles. But she went one step further – Nishimura is the only woman who has ever partaken in the sakazuki ceremony of exchanging sake cups. This is the ritual that confirms formal affiliation with a yakuza group.

Joining the gang

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 would use to discipline her. During junior high school, she felt the urge to escape from under the yoke of her family, so she befriended unruly peers – and eventually biker gangs (bosozoku) who taught her how to fight.

This rebellious streak led her to a young yakuza member, who took her under his wing and showed her how to collect protection money, solve disputes, engage in blackmail and scout girls for prostitution.

Her life took a turn when one night she received a call: her friend was in a fight and needed help. She ran to the rescue and using a club she turned the scene into a bloodbath. This caught the attention of the boss of the local yakuza group, who called her to his office. She told me that she remembers his words to this day: “Even if you’re a woman, you must become a yakuza”.

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Mako Nishimura during her apprenticeship Image: Martina Baradel

By this time, she had been to juvenile detention centers several times, and her family had ceased their efforts to save her. She accepted the boss’ invitation and started living the rigorous life of a yakuza trainee. She joined alongside a cohort of male recruits, performing daily tasks, and eventually taking part in the group’s criminal activities.

Master of finger cutting

She finally underwent the sakazuki ceremony dressed in a male kimono, and swore her life to the path of the yakuza.

As an affiliate, she ran prostitution and drugs businesses, collected debts and mediated disputes between rival groups. When she cut off her own little finger to apologize for a collective mistake in a ritual known as yubitsume, she realized she had a knack for it. Members who could not go through with the amputation themselves would ask Nishimura to do it for them, garnering her the nickname of “master of finger cutting.”

But disillusionment set in once Nishimura reached her 30s, as meth became the main trade of her group and her own addiction started taking a heavy toll. She ran away – ironically continuing to run her meth business independently. For this, she was expelled from the group. At this point she started 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 her efforts, her yakuza past – marked by her tattoos – prevented her from getting any regular sort of job. She married the father of her child, now a yakuza boss, and returned to prostitution businesses and drug dealing. After a second pregnancy, fights with her husband became more and more violent, to the point police were called any time one erupted. They eventually divorced and he took custody of the two sons.

She rejoined her old group, but meth had changed the boss that she adored, and in two years she left for good.

Life after crime

Nishimura lived as a male yakuza and retired as one. She found a job in the demolition business and a modest home where she now lives alone. She lives a quiet life, trying to be accepted by the community and to help others. With the assistance of Mr Fujimoto, a former yakuza himself, she also manages a branch of Gojinkai, a charity dedicated to providing housing and aid to former yakuza members, ex-convicts and addicts.

She says, “My day is not complete if I don’t come here at night”. They gather around a table to talk about the old days, current difficulties, and to check on each other. She is still the only woman at the table.

She insists that what earned her respect in an all-male world is her capacity for violence: “I was great at fighting, I never lost against a man.” But Nishimura does not want to be a feminist icon: it was not her intention to break gender stereotypes or publicize herself as the only female yakuza.

There have been other women – like Taoka Fumiko, widow of a yakuza boss – who, though not formally affiliated, have made a significant impact in the history of the yakuza. But none went the extra step like Nishimura and became a fully pledged member with the cut little finger.

Her story redefines the boundaries of gender roles and allegiance in the brutal world of Japanese organized crime – a unique journey of identity and belonging.

Martina Baradel is a Marie Curie postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford.

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

56 Comments
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Would.

-1 ( +10 / -11 )

she ran prostitution and drugs businesses

We shouldn’t celebrate violent women who run prostitution and drug businesses and extol self-amputation.

36 ( +56 / -20 )

 her 30s, as meth became the main trade of her group and her own addiction started taking a heavy toll.

She lost with meth.

8 ( +26 / -18 )

‘I never lost a fight against a man’: The story of the only woman to join Japan’s notorious yakuza

But Japanese exploitation V-cine taught me there were a lot of yakuza ladies, female prisoners and tough delinquents.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Articles like this are what make Japan Today such a good read.

-5 ( +17 / -22 )

And where is all this meant to have happened?

Not a single place name or area is mentioned.

15 ( +19 / -4 )

Why is this article congratulating this evil woman ?

Its supporting illegal gang idolization

I do not think this article is congratulating this woman. It just tells her story. Well, readers can have different opinions after reading it.

10 ( +20 / -10 )

Its a very interesting story. I don't applaud nor blame her. Her life is a mixture of bad karma as well as bad choices. But she is trying to redeem herself. Have to give her props for that.

-1 ( +17 / -18 )

In focus today! an aid worker, or volunteer group? A young Politician trying to make a better world? A sports hero who overcame adversity?

Nah...a Drug dealing extortionist who can throw down with the boys.

LOL!!!

13 ( +23 / -10 )

Not a single place name or area is mentioned

Sumiyoshi kai, so Tokyo area.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

Her story redefines the boundaries of gender roles and allegiance in the brutal world of Japanese organized crime – a unique journey of identity and belonging.

She’s a pimp, drug dealer and violent criminal.

14 ( +24 / -10 )

What happens to the finger ?

2 ( +8 / -6 )

Stop glorifying and glamourizing these people. 'Goodfellas' and 'The Godfather' 'Sopranos' et al have a lot to answer for.

6 ( +22 / -16 )

What a piece of……! She’s a criminal scum, thug,pimp, drug dealer, drug pusher, and how many victims has she left behind. She didn’t care about the victims and she didn’t redefine anything. There are bad women everywhere and she sold them drugs, forced them into prostitution, extortion. Why some cry for the death sentence for others this seems to glorify her.. I wonder if was responsible for any deaths????

11 ( +20 / -9 )

Another romantisation of Yakuza, through such articles. What is the point? She is scum, the lowest level from society. She is a criminal by definition, living ONLY through ilegalities and hurting other people.

What's with all this Yakuza advertisement and romantisation??

5 ( +20 / -15 )

OMG! I would not dare to go nearer than ten (10) feet from this tatooed woman! And no man should!!

2 ( +10 / -8 )

First I would love to talk to her, and she really should write a book.

-9 ( +8 / -17 )

I'm really into the Tom and Jerry sticker on her dresser drawer.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

I honestly don't feel sympathy for these people. Yes she may be trying to live a quite life now, but considering how many lives she destroyed in the process, it's just not something I can root for, sorry.

14 ( +18 / -4 )

Topsy turvy world! These people are scum of the earth parasites who feed off the decent hard working people trying to make ends meet. Something really wrong in Japan where these parasites are glorified!

6 ( +14 / -8 )

Guys I worked with in Jordan (Jordanians) knew / know Tom and Jerry,

they are world renowned.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

Just because she is a female yakuza doesn't mean she is a righteous woman.

12 ( +15 / -3 )

I do not think this article is congratulating this woman. It just tells her story. Well, readers can have different opinions after reading it.

Yeah and this is nothing abnormal. There are tons of TV series, Youtube channels, documentaries and books made from the viewpoint of gangs and inmates.

-3 ( +5 / -8 )

She's a role model worthy of all emulations. Thus, she made the JT headline.

-9 ( +7 / -16 )

she also manages a branch of Gojinkai, a charity dedicated to providing housing and aid to former yakuza members, ex-convicts and addicts.

The only good thing in this crime apology interesting article..

3 ( +7 / -4 )

This is the story of a tough woman who broke barriers in a man-exclusive field almost impossibly. What she did was bad and the story doesn't imply that it wasn't but it's very much a story of empowerment. If a woman cad do what she did, transfer her to any other all-male field and it shows women can do anything, which they can. It isn't a story aggrandizing yakuza, but aggrandizing women. If a girl read this, she would not necessarily want to be a yakuza woman but she would want to be strong like this woman is and apply that empowerment to any field.

As well, Nishimura is now trying to live a productive, proactive life. She shed her past to try to become a positive, productive member of society and that, too, can empower women.

-12 ( +7 / -19 )

Terrible person, but still an interesting story. I can't imagine the kind of mentality it would require to cut off your own finger.

9 ( +13 / -4 )

 She’s a criminal scum, thug,pimp, drug dealer, drug pusher, and how many victims has she left behind. 

Not as many as the leaders of nations and their accomplices who ironically enjoy the "respect" of society and the world despite the millions of lives they have ruined. Nishimura's life is a human story marked by many mistakes and failures. She is herself a victim of family and society, beasts that devour their own children.

-8 ( +9 / -17 )

u_s__reamerToday  10:40 am JST

 She’s a criminal scum, thug,pimp, drug dealer, drug pusher, and how many victims has she left behind. 

Not as many as the leaders of nations and their accomplices who ironically enjoy the "respect" of society and the world despite the millions of lives they have ruined. Nishimura's life is a human story marked by many mistakes and failures. She is herself a victim of family and society, beasts that devour their own children.

Well, I think it depends on how you define a political criminal, especially in today click bate, headline grabbing world, but I would never put them in the grouping. I think it requires more nuance than the "politics". You may have a point when it comes to dealing with a dictatorship v a democracy, where the dictators act more like the YAKUZA, on a governmental level. She had many chances, and for her to play the victim, is an excuse for pimping, extorting money, drug dealing, and excuses her behaviour, and totally ignores the victims, she prayed on. I think all politicians and people would say she was a criminal, a pimp, a drug dealer,drug pusher and left victims in her wake. I'd rather sit down with a politician and have a coffee than the yakuza. Not All politicians are bad, but ALL yaks are criminals.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

This was the best story I've seen on here in a long time. I enjoyed reading this.

Please more content like this.

-6 ( +9 / -15 )

How many people has she killed? That is a real gangster for mine. No respect if she hasn’t done that.

-8 ( +2 / -10 )

As others have written, why is this violent criminal being celebrated here?

5 ( +14 / -9 )

As others have written, why is this violent criminal being celebrated here?

The article isn't celebrating her, its just recounting her story and introducing us to the fact that a female Yakuza existed.

Compared to some of the other content on here this is an article by someone who has actually done some quite in-depth research into the Yakuza and directly interviewed them. While the subject of the article is obviously a violent criminal, I thought it was a pretty good article.

-6 ( +7 / -13 )

She's horrid and should be locked up in prison.

1 ( +9 / -8 )

The only difference between Yakuza and LDP is that the LDP are the dominant force of power and are publicly accepted.

So I'd like to see the same vitriol in the comments when JT posts about the gov't.

-2 ( +8 / -10 )

Not exactly similar but reminded me of one of my favorite anime samurai x

Anyway I can accept the violence if it's done to others willing able and intent to do the same but drugs are unquestionably evil

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

But Nishimura does not want to be a feminist icon

She got my vote, then.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

This is the story of a tough woman who broke barriers in a man-exclusive field almost impossibly. What she did was bad and the story doesn't imply that it wasn't but it's very much a story of empowerment. If a woman cad do what she did, transfer her to any other all-male field and it shows women can do anything, which they can. It isn't a story aggrandizing yakuza, but aggrandizing women. If a girl read this, she would not necessarily want to be a yakuza woman but she would want to be strong like this woman is and apply that empowerment to any field.

What a strange worldview. She excelled at violence.

4 ( +7 / -3 )

What happens to the finger ?

Tossed into the rubbish dump and consumed by seagulls.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Is this a PR/recruiting article for Yakuza?

4 ( +7 / -3 )

I stopped believing in that fantasy when I read "to the point police were called any time one erupted".

A cry baby.

Whenwas she tried ?

If her story had any scintilla of truth, she'd have so many warrants against her, so many heavy price tags over her head, that she would never brag ever of what she'd become, even an angel flying in front of me blessing children.

1 ( +6 / -5 )

What a fascinating story - terrible person, but fascinating story

2 ( +4 / -2 )

If a woman cad do what she did, transfer her to any other all-male field and it shows women can do anything, which they can.

I being a woman, think women cant always do anything and especially in a male field. As well as men cant do anything in any kind of field. Some women can do this. How high the percentage of those some I dont know it needs some serious and longrun scientific examining.

It isn't a story aggrandizing yakuza, but aggrandizing women. If a girl read this, she would not necessarily want to be a yakuza woman but she would want to be strong like this woman is and apply that empowerment to any field.

Not necessarily. She may not want or may not have possibilities or may want but not have the ability. Being strong for a woman these days in my view is being able to stay mentally strong and resilient, to get a profession, to earn money on your own so that it is enough even without having a husband. Can that be motivated by the story of a yakuza woman - I dont know its up to individual’s interpretation. As for me, the main idea out of this story that strikes me more than ‘empowerment of a woman’ is ‘the path of imperfect human soul through darkness to light’

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Wandora: "What a strange worldview. She excelled at violence."

I don't see this article as glorifying her, but just telling her interesting story. I have seen throughout history the glorification of violence by people that did it on a much larger scale than she did. Thousands, hundreds of thousands killed and the main architects of those deaths are often glorified because they were 'on the right side,' which is an arbitrary assessment at best.

She does not get a pass for being a criminal, but at least she's attempting to do better, when so many others go to their graves while still committing evil acts. And I think that makes for an interesting story, be it as a cautionary tale or partial redemption is a matter of opinion.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

SO what's the point of this article or what education or enlightenment does this article bring to your readers JT!??

4 ( +6 / -2 )

The point i took is that prostitution is legal for women if they got involved in a criminal group and serious crimes, and it’s illegal for normal women who just want to make a living.

one confusion i got is that article is stating yakuza as a criminal organisation. Is it officially a criminal organisation in japan? I thought it was not considered as criminal organisation.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

She has lived her life by destroying the lives of other. Inflicting violence and fear without compunction. There is no indication of regret or change of attitude, everything is driven by her needs and desires at that moment in time. Now she is running the Yakuza retirement programme.

A singularly despicable individual, unusual but despicable nonetheless.

An article does not need to be overtly praising of her lifestyle choices to still have the effect of propagandising them, regardless of the authors intent.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Should toughest gangster be glamorized? Imagine middle&high school girl read real life gangster story that is nothing but thrills&heroic?

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Please cover her victims if you are going to engage in the hagiography of this criminal...

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Look like the author is a feminist glorifying this woman ignoring the fact her biggest victims were the exploitation of women.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

She is a fine role model for all young Japanese girls and leads a successful life to which all can aspire.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

A lot of people worship celebrities just because they're famous. But really don't know them at all. At least you know every detail of her life. And now she's trying to do some good in the world. I respect that. But I don't respect celebrities with hundreds of millions of $ that don't do anything with to help people or charity's that could really use some help.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

It’s odd, don’t you think, that this article specifies meth quite clearly as the drug being dealt and taken, whereas most other articles in the Japanese media remain coy about “stimulants”?

6 ( +6 / -0 )

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