Like you, all my understanding of the mafia comes from what I see in movies. And while I know The Godfather can seduce with all that suiting and moral sweep, it’s basically costume drama for dudes. Most modern portrayals of organized crime have presented mobsters as a group of horribly dressed sociopaths, and rightfully so. I’ve never expected those concerned with the moral life to make a career of creatively goring people with ice picks.
But photographer Anton Kusters says that, where the yakuza are concerned, some of those creaky tropes about loyalty and honor are true. Having spent two years documenting the life of a Tokyo yakuza gang, he was given unprecedented access to a criminal underworld steeped in ritual, nuance, and exploitation.
Steward: How did this project begin? Had you always been interested in the yakuza?
Anton Kusters: Actually it began with me trying to find a way to spend more time with my brother, who lives in Tokyo working in marketing. We were out having a beer one night, discussing how to do this, when suddenly this Yakuza came in. He was very sharply dressed, in a tailored suit, and had this presence about him. He greeted everyone, spoke to the bar’s owner, Taka-san, and left. So it just seemed like a cool idea. My brother knew Taka-san well enough to ask him to be our fixer with the gang.
S: Was it easy getting their permission?
AK: After Taka-san introduced me, he told me and my brother we were on our own. So we had to really fend for ourselves trying to convince the gang to let me photograph them. It took a little while. At first they thought I might be doing this for a paper, so I had told them it was not journalistically inspired, but an art project that would lead to a book and an exhibition. They quite liked the idea of an art project. They view what they do as part of a way of life rather than the sum of their actions, and liked talking about the subculture—it’s values and everything. They turned out to be very encouraging. They enjoyed the attention.
S: What was it like in the beginning?
AK: I was extremely nervous. Since they are gangsters, I thought I should be very careful, in case I shot something I wasn’t supposed to see. But this actually upset the gang. They saw my nervousness as disrespectful. I remember one time early on Soichiro pulled me aside and said, “You are here to take pictures. Act like a professional.” It turned out they respected me if I was really aggressive about getting a certain shot. To not take photos was a sign of weakness.
S: So what was that subculture like? What kind of values did they have?
AK: The values were almost comparable to general Japanese workplace values, actually. Most yakuza gangs actually have neighborhood offices, and the plaques they have on the door state core values like “respect your superiors,” “keep the office clean,” and so on.
One thing I noticed early on with gang life was how subtle everything was. Everything was unspoken, and will was expressed through group pressure. A pressure was constantly there. There was this innate understanding of form—if someone did something wrong, no one would say anything; he would simply be expected to apologize. And the fact everyone would be so silent about it made the pressure really intense.
S: If a member was made to apologize, would he have to cut off a piece of his finger or anything?
AK: Mostly not. There were of course men who had had yubitsume and it would still happen, but only every few years or so.
The gang really went out of their way to minimize violence. Part of what I noticed about the Yakuza was that they felt as if they were almost “part” of society, like society wasn’t society without a criminal element, but this also made them very conscious of their role within society. Like I said, they have a pretty visible profile in Japan, so all the bosses are very careful not to stand out or draw attention. This also obviously makes them much harder to prosecute.
If someone made a transgression, the most common punishment was demotion. And it was taken seriously. If someone was demoted it was really seen as shameful since the yakuza are so hierarchical. They could leverage social form that way.
S: One of the first things I think of when I hear “mob income” is violent extortion. How did the gang make its money if it avoided violence?
AK: They were involved in a lot of white-collar crime. In the past there had been violent turf wars, but Soichiro, the street boss, told me “We can get the most money out of the economy.”
An example would be debt collection. They would actually go and buy entire loan databases and pay off the money people owed. Of course, after that happened, those debts were just transferred over to the yakuza.
Also, after Fukushima [the nuclear disaster], they helped rebuild some houses; only it wasn’t a simple philanthropic relationship. These people now owe the gang.
Here too there was unspoken pressure. For example, the first few times they would simply send a member over to the house of the person who owed. He wouldn’t mention the debt directly or anything, but there was no mistaking what he was there for. They were really skilled at unspoken intimidation.
S: Sounds a bit skuzzy. Why do you think society puts up with them?
AK: It’s said neighborhoods with a big yakuza presence are some of the seediest places in Japan, but also some of the safest places. The yakuza are not randomly violent—I mean, there is violence, but it doesn’t spill out into the public eye very often since keeping a low profile is good for business. And the yakuza are vested in making sure other people’s violence doesn’t spill into the public, either.
All non-yakuza gangs with a presence in Japan only exist by the grace of the yakuza. In Kabuki-cho the Nigerian mob were ceded a certain amount of territory and not allowed to step outside their bounds. If they did they’d be beaten up. The gang had street cameras everywhere to make sure nothing disruptive was happening.
S: What made all this more than the “sum of their actions”—what made this a way of life? It sounds like they are just practical men looking after their assets.
AK: It’s true they are practical. Sometimes members would try to justify debt collection by saying “people who owe money are not good people and deserve it,” but I never had the impression anyone really believed that. It was just good, practical business.
The sense of family was very real. Many delinquent youth, who haven’t had much in their life, are given something secure, a place where they feel they belong.
The gang made its recruits attend week-long orientations at a fishing village. I went along for one of these. There was bodyguard training, how to defend from a knife attack, stuff like that. But these recruits also rose at four in the morning to meditate. They helped local fisherman with their haul, cooked together at the end of the day. They learned how to handle samurai swords. There was something very ceremonial about it. It was strange, having these helpful and violent things happening side by side that illustrated how yakuza saw themselves…bad people doing good things.
S: So who were the people you followed around? What were they like?
AK: I followed around two people mainly, who brought me into the bigger social circle. One was the kaichou, the president of the organization. The other was Shoichiro, who was the street boss.
The kaichou looked a university professor—wire glasses, white hair, a goatee. He always walked around in a tailored suit—all the higher ups did. The kaichou was de facto the CEO of the family, delegating tasks to a lot of people, always being driven around, surrounded by bodyguards. He liked golf. I thought he was friendly enough, but wasn’t very chatty. I didn’t expect him to be, he had a business to run all the time.
Soichiro was a muscular guy, since he worked as the physical enforcer for all the gang’s ground operations. He was very gruff, especially on the phone and when he was around his subordinates. He was my direct contact within the family, and I was actually closest with him. He was actually very particular about his appearance, and got his haircut and nails manicured once a week.
S: What was your experience with tattoos during your time with the gang? What did you learn about their significance?
AK: Tattoos were originally used as a way for members to recognize each other at bathhouses, the traditional yakuza place of business. But these tattoos obviously have deep significance for yakuza, and getting one is a very big deal. It’s a sense of pride and belonging, as well as a testament to one’s manhood because the process is so painful.
Gangs typically have a certain artist working for them—but this wasn’t an “in-house” situation and there was no pressure on members from seeing other artists. These artists work through a very old medium of sticking four inked needles into the skin, at around 120 pokes per minute, at a precise angle against bodyfat. There aren’t too many of them operating anymore, so the gang treats with a tremendous amount of respect. Even the kaichou called his tattoo artist “sensei.”
To get a meeting with an artist, you first need an internal recommendation. Then you have an interview with the artist to see if he even agrees to take you on—they say the honor of being chosen by a tattoo artist is as important as the tattoo itself.
I was with the kaichou when he got a second tattoo. The gang had just entered into an alliance with another family, so as a show of loyalty he had his original full-body tattoo burned off with hot coals and replaced with a new tattoo.
S: What surprised you about your experience with the gang?
AK: Coming in, I thought I would be dealing with thugs. While I was shielded from the violence, these yakuza still seem more like economic criminals. Life here is not a Kill Bill movie. It turned out everything was more subtle.