Photographer Chloé Jafé and her infiltration in yakuza – the Japanese maffia

Photographer Chloé Jafé is a name to watch. After years of experience, she infiltrated in the mysterious world of Japanese maffia. Her work uncovers the highly unknown underworld of Japan – at least unknown to the outer world. Within Japan, they’re notoriously well-known.
Cover photo: © Unsplash

Chloé Jafé

French photographer Chloé Jafé isn’t a new name in the scene. Hence, one of her latest series – “I give you my life” – sparked her career. For this series, the talented photographer infiltrated in the mysterious world of the yakuza – also known as the Japanese maffia. To understand this Japanese subculture, Jafé knew she thoroughly had to understand the Japanese culture as a whole.

Therefore, she immersed herself within the Japanese culture, by learning the language and moving to Japan. While working at a hostess bar – a place solely visited by men – she came closer to the yakuza women. Very often, her colleagues were linked to yakuza. To Jafé, this experience felt exciting. It gave her the opportunity to get to know these women and to slowly understand their norms, traditions and values better. However, it took over two years before yakuza’s doors opened. and Jafé was allowed to get in.


Jafé was about to give up, when she met a “boss” from the higher yakuza ranks. After having many conversations, he started to trust her. It marked the moment on which she got permission to photograph the yakuza women, including their body-covering tattoos.

What particularly drove Jafé, was the unknown story about the female counterparts of many known yukuza men. Often, underground and maffia women are depicted as slightly superficial, highly dependent on their spouse and gullible in their way of life. Yakuza women are exactly the opposite of these portrayals and therefore Jafé believed it was about time to tell their stories to the world.


“I give you my life”

With her series “I give you my life”, Chloé Jafé gives the watcher an intimate view in the lives of yakuza women – who play an important role within their clan. When allowed to infiltrate in the yakuza gang, Jafé started to build a respectful relationship with its members. Yakuza women are often covered with tattoos. To the Japanese, these tattoos are inseparably connected to gang culture. Therefore, some Japanese institutions ban people with any form of ink on their bodies.


Altough jakuza women hide their inked bodies from society, on Jafé’s photographs they’re very proud of their ‘irezumi’. These irezumi show how the owner copes with pain, combined with her sense of perseverance. The tattoos form some kind of shield to the wearer – they’re meant to protect them. Often they tell a story about the past or the personality of the women wearing them. At men, however, they often reveal the group they belong to – like their boss’ name. Most Japanese people aren’t likely to like these types of ink. They symbolize crime and criminal gangs. Therefore yakuza women don’t wear them visibly when they go out in public, but just show them to their loved ones.


With this series, Chloé Jafé rebels against the stereotype maffia wives. These yakazuma wives are strong (financially) independent and have an active role within their social group. It radically differs from the way in which Western movies depict women in maffia. Will this series change our view on underground women forever? Let’s hope so.

You can buy Chloé Jafé’s work here.


Also read: Reflecting on isolation and social distancing through photography