- Atahualpa Amerise @atareports
- BBC News World
It all started one drunken night 15 years ago in a Parisian bar.
“My boyfriend and I were devastated because we broke up with our partners. We drank a lot of wine and said: ‘to go far to Japan‘although it could have been anywhere else,” photographer Chloe Jaffe (Lyon, 1984) explains to BBC Mundo.
The month-long trip took her from complete indifference to fascination with Japanese culture.
He decided to repeat: “On my second trip I thought ‘next time I’ll stay.’ I felt I had something to do here, although I didn’t know what.’
Immersing himself in Japanese content, from old samurai films to series, novels and comics, he begins to feel drawn to the underworld of organized crime, which in Japan is personified by the yakuza.
“It’s sexy in a way,” he says.
Women in a man’s world
Divided into groups or syndicates like the Italian mafia, the yakuza run all kinds of criminal businesses, from gambling, drugs and prostitution to loan sharking, racketeering and white-collar crime.
Its name comes from the numbers 8, 9, 3 (pronounced ya, ku, sa in Japanese) which represent the worst possible card game, which is why its members find it degrading and prefer denominations gokudo (the “extreme path”) or ninkyo dantai (“an honorable or chivalric organization”).
Although its origins date back to the 17th century, the yakuza saw its heyday in the second half of the 20th century, when the underworld flourished in the midst of the country’s dizzying economic development after World War II.
However, the modernization of Japanese society and police persecution decimated the yakuza, whose more than 200,000 members in the early 1960s were abandoned. just over 12,000 last year, according to security force estimates.
And they all have one thing in common: they are men.
“I saw that there were no women and I wondered why. Surely there must be women, I thought, but they don’t talk about it.
Chloé Jafé opened Yakuza Moon, Shoko Tendo’s autobiographical novel about her difficult adolescence as the daughter of a Japanese gangster.
“I felt very close to this reality and 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 decides to buy another ticket to Japan, this time to stay and portray yakuza women.
In early 2013, he settled in Tokyo with no contacts or knowledge of Japanese, a language that is difficult to learn, among other things, because its script combines three completely different alphabets.
“It was my project and I’m very persistent. I didn’t know how, but I had to do it. I knew it wouldn’t happen soon, but I was happy to dedicate myself to it without counting the days.”
It was two years before she, with an acceptable level of Japanese, found work as a housewife.
The hostesses or kyabajo (“cabaret girls”) entertain nightclub patronsusually middle-aged or older men with whom they engage in conversation, sing karaoke songs, pour drinks and smoke cigarettes.
Chloé defines them as “a kind of modern geisha”.
“I got completely involved with these women. Some of them did a yakuza boyfriend or father, and also these clubs are usually run by this mafia. It was a good starting point to enter this world,” he says.
However, his last chance came during the day, in the middle of the street and coincidentally during the Shinto festival Sanja Matsuri in the traditional Tokyo district of Asakusa.
“Somehow I ended up down the street from a yakuza boss. I was sitting and he appeared with a kimono and two bodyguards. I didn’t know who he was, but he seemed important.’
It was orapple or capo of the Japanese mafia.
He invited her to his table and she kept his phone number with the excuse of sending him the photos from the festival.
“I sent him the photos and asked him out to dinner a few days later. It was a surprise to him and me, honestly I was horrified“.
inside a yakuza
Breaking with Japanese tradition, which preserves all the initiative for the man, she chose the restaurant (“close to a police station and a subway station if she needs to run”) and found him there 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 photograph mafia women in your country, with respect and taking the necessary time, for which I need your help. ” “.
The answer was positive: “He said to 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 boss’s trust and his or her environment.
“He toyed with me for a while. He saw that I was young and pretty, and he thought whether or not he could use me for something, to test what my intentions were… in short, to test me.”
Gradually, she began to be invited to yakuza events and gatherings.
“His bodyguards were going to pick me up and I didn’t know where we were going to meet, it was like a movie. For some time I asked him various things, but he did not answer me. There were tense moments.”
the wife of oyabunwho initially distrusted her eventually welcomed her and He invited her to spend the New Year holidays with his family.
He meets the wife of another boss, of whom he takes the first photos of the project, and expands his yakuza contacts with new women to photograph.
“It’s terrible, but … I suspect that some people who maybe didn’t want to be photographed had to pose for me because I was friends with the boss,” she admits.
The first sessions in Tokyo were followed by many others in various places in Japan, such as Osaka and the subtropical archipelago of Okinawa.
It is in Okinawa, where the criminal underworld flourished in the 20th century around the largest American air force base in the region, that one of the trilogy series of Chloë Jaffe “Okinawa mon amour” takes place, showing the darkest and marginal side of the islands.
The artist’s lens stands out in particular yakuza women tattoos.
“The Japanese mafia is interesting because it is closely related 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 everywhere in the world it is not unusual to see people with a dragon or a snake on their skin, in Japan the culture of tattoos and their perception is completely different.
“There are the tattoos they are not made for displayChloe explains.
Japanese society rejects tattoos, associating them with crime and marginality, to such an extent that their display is prohibited in swimming pools and certain public places.
For yakuza they symbolize loyalty to the group and also resistance to painas they are usually made using the traditional wooden stick and needle method, slower and sharper.
Devotion as a way of life
The first series of the trilogy is called “I Give You My Life”, in reference to the devotion that yakuza women profess to men.
“They know that these men are not the right people and that if they date them, they will be cut off from society forever because no one wants anything to do with the mafia in Japan.” they mess with them because they fall in love“.
And while not officially members, women have their own roles, especially in the upper echelons of the yakuza.
“When you marry a capo, you have to take care of the mob members, know their personal details, their stories and be aware of everything, because if something happens to your husband you must accept his role until the next boss comes.”
In his experience, the wife of a oyabun “She is the prime minister of the mob, but she does everything in the shadows, always behind the scenes.”
Also, the yakuza is a tough road back, especially for them.
“Women who divorce a yakuza are in a difficult position because they can never really come out. They lose the support of the mafia, but at the same time it is almost impossible to rebuild their lives and reintegrate into Japanese society. They can never leave the underworldsays the photographer.
Many of them are also responsible for running hostess clubs, accounts and other legal and illegal businesses run by the Japanese mafia.
Her project completed, Chloé Jafé returned to France at the end of 2019.
And she feels that after almost seven years immersed in the basements of Japanese society, she is no longer the same as before.
“I spent a lot of time with them and I could never be a foreigner in Japan again. I feel part of them. I felt part of the group, he wanted to honor the chief and his wife. They took me in as their own daughter, so they became my family in Japan.”
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