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The story of Nishimura Mako, the only woman who managed to be a member of the Japanese yakuza mafia

Only men can belong to the Yakuza.

This is one of the unbreakable principles that govern the Japanese mafia, made up of more than twenty criminal syndicates spread throughout the Asian country.

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In its more than three centuries of history, there are only records of one woman who completed the ritual of belonging to the yakuza.

It’s about Nishimura Makowho is now 57 years old and who showed unusual rebellion from a young age which led her to join motorcycle gangs known as bosozoku.

The meeting with a young member of the yakuza marked a turning point in her life: fascinated by the world of organized crime, she quickly became involved in the illicit activities of this mafia.

Nishimura’s frail appearance contrasted with his propensity for violence: “I was very good at fighting, I never lost to a man.“, he once confessed Martina Baradela researcher at the University of Oxford who earned his trust after years of studying the yakuza from the inside.

His criminal history – which ranged from beating rivals to drug trafficking or trafficking women for prostitution – and his ruthless character opened doors that until then had been closed to women.

The decline of the yakuza in recent decades and personal circumstances (she is a mother of two children) led Nishimura to leave the underworld and start a normal life.

Today she runs a charitable organization dedicated to helping other former members who, like her, want to reintegrate into society.

Fascinated by the story of Nishimura and the yakuza in general, Martina Baradel (Trieste, Italy, 1988) He built a network of contacts with organized crime figures in Japan.

Italian researcher Martina Baradel, from the University of Oxford. (MARTIN BARADEL).

This allowed him Form a close friendship with Nishimura Makowhich he visits frequently.

BBC Mundo interviewed the Italian researcher hours after she met with the former yakuza member in Gifu, 270 kilometers west of Tokyo.


How do we know that Mako is the only woman who belonged to the yakuza?

If there were another, it would be known. The police have the records of the Yakuza members. Many women have helped or informally supported the mafia, but there is no one like her.

It was because of her boss, who made the unprecedented decision to make her a member of the group. And it is proven that he is an effective member, as he has photos of his joining ceremony. Sakazukiwhich symbolizes loyalty and commitment to the Japanese mafia.

Nishimura Mako (bottom left) with his boss and yakuza colleagues in the 1980s.

Nishimura Mako (bottom left) with his boss and yakuza colleagues in the 1980s.

How did you get to her?

My fascination with the Yakuza began during my undergraduate studies, when I met members of the Yakuza by chance on a beach in Japan. This initial meeting sparked a deep interest in me that motivated me to dedicate my academic career to studying this institution.

The group that studies the yakuza is very small, so I met everyone, from journalists to researchers, and my senpai (mentor) told me he was going to meet Nishimura, so he introduced us.

And how was that first meeting?

There was a charity event for the reintegration and rehabilitation of ex-convicts and she was there with people from her group. We went to dinner and then to karaoke. She doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and the first time she was cautious.

I then went to see her again to talk some more, and later I continued to get to know her and we developed a relationship as our conversations deepened.

What led Mako to join the yakuza?

She confessed to me that from a young age she had a passion for violence and loved fighting. He began to hang out with motorcycle gangs and have violent encounters with other people, something that fascinated him.

And then he realized that he had unusual strength for his physical constitution, as he is just over one and a half meters tall and weighs 45 kg.

Why was the little finger amputated?

He did this at a very young age, at the beginning of his career, around 20 years old. She took responsibility for a problem that occurred. They lost drugs or something. And so he also thought it would look good in combination with tattoos, since they are the two most visible symbols of the yakuza aesthetic.

Furthermore, she guarantees that she doesn’t feel pain and didn’t mind amputating the little fingers of her colleagues who didn’t want to do it themselves. Her skill in the ritual of Yubitsumewhich involves the amputation of the final phalanx of the little finger, earned him the nickname “master of finger cutting”.

How did you interact in Japanese society as part of the Yakuza?

She left the yakuza for the first time when she became pregnant. She had a carer’s diploma and wanted to find a normal job, but was rejected by Japanese society, mainly because of her tattoos, which suggest mafia affiliation.

She always tried to hide them by wearing long sleeves, but eventually her co-workers found out and she was fired from two jobs.

And that made her go back to the mafia?

In fact. She was very upset, because she was trying to be a mother, have a good job and leave that life behind, but they closed doors to her for being different. He thought this was very unfair, so he became even more radical.

That’s when he got his tattoos down to his fingertips and resigned himself to his fate. Before returning, she was married for a time to a yakuza member who became a boss, so she also played the role of the boss’s wife.

When he grew up, he abandoned her permanently. Is it easy to leave the yakuza?

If your boss agrees, you may have to pay something or sometimes even nothing if the boss agrees to your leaving. Circumstances are different, but most of the time you can walk away without too much trouble.

It’s surprising considering it’s a mafia.

Yes, it’s a mafia, but you don’t have many secrets to tell. The structure is known and the police already know who your boss is, they know your address and they can go and find whoever they want.

It’s not like, for example, Sicily, where gangsters can stay hidden for up to 30 years.

Furthermore, those who leave do not betray others, as it is dishonorable behavior for the yakuza.

How do yakuza cartels and organized crime compare in Italy, Latin America and other countries?

What they have in common is that they offer private protection and have established control over territory, which allows them to govern both illegal and legal markets.

The yakuza has a governance dimension that it can maintain over time, similar to the mafia in Italy and Russia, offering dispute resolution services and controlling markets to receive protection money.

Considering that Nishimura is an exception, what is typically the role of women in the yakuza?

This usually occurs through a relationship or marriage. Although they are not officially members, they usually perform some type of work. For example, if you are the wife of a boss, you cannot limit yourself to living an ostentatious life and you are expected to mediate between the boss and the younger members.

And, of course, there is also exploitation, because the yakuza operate in nightlife, prostitution, and the sex and pornography industries. She (Nishimura Mako) did this too: she bought, sold and exploited women.

What did you learn from the Yakuza members?

I see that they may have made some mistakes, of course, because they are carrying out criminal activities, but I don’t see them as bad people.

They were simply looking for something they didn’t have. Many of them come from a background without many opportunities. In Japan, if you don’t have an education or family to support you, it’s very difficult to get a job and get ahead. So I understand that they would try to find a sense of community and purpose in something that isn’t cool.

And for most, it is better to be part of the yakuza than an informal gang, because the yakuza has some control over its members and also some kind of ideological agenda.

You’ve been researching the Yakuza for nine years, mingling with them. Doesn’t it involve some risks?

Not a lot. The criminal syndicates that make up the yakuza are not actually illegal, unlike what happens in Italy with the mafia. In Japan it is not illegal to be part of a yakuza group, which is why they have offices and stand out in society.

Since it’s not invisible or illegal, it’s not as risky. Furthermore, we are usually introduced to a third person, which implies mutual responsibility to behave correctly. And since I’m a foreigner and a woman, this works in my favor, as it would be really bad for them if something happened to me.

Source: Elcomercio

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