Odo Yakuza Tokyo


Written by Olivia Patt
Photos and illustrations by Anton Kusters
14 Sunday 14th August 2011

In sharp contrast to London gangsters, Tokyo's Yakuza are all bespoke suits and legitimate business dealings. But which is more photogenic? Let's find out.

Anton Kusters is a bit of a jack of all trades. Splitting his time between Brussels and Tokyo, Kusters is a photographer, graphic designer and creative designer at BURN magazine. He deals in what he calls “immersive projects”, using images, film and text. For his newest project, Odo Yakuza Tokyo, Kusters spent many months documenting the subculture of the Yakuza criminal organisation in Tokyo. As the first westerner to be granted access of the kind, the results are both fascinating and frightening in turn. We spoke to Kusters about the project and his experience in this previously unknown world.

What first made you decide to undertake the project?

Wanting to spend more time with my brother Malik who has lived in Japan for a long time. It seemed like a perfect excuse to do a photo project together - he's a marketing expert - but little did we know that the subject would turn out to be the Yakuza. It could have as well been cherry blossom trees.

You spent two years with the Yakuza, which must have been intense. Were there moments when you felt scared, or intimidated?

The tension was mostly "under the skin", but always very palpable. There were moments when I felt genuinely uncomfortable, like when they were explaining that me or my brother would be expected to cut off our finger if we were to make a grave mistake. And then there was the moment where we entered a room full of Yakuza bosses and failed to greet the bosses in the correct order, unknowingly disrespecting them. I could say that we were scared then, when they got angry at us there in that room. We got lucky because we were westerners and they forgave us for this mistake, thinking that we lacked the 'finesse' to understand their fine grained social order anyway.

A senior member of the Odo clan shows his hand with missing digits on two fingers to lend weight to his apology for a wrongdoing

Was there anything in particular about the customs or culture of the Yakuza that surprised you?

The subtlety of social interaction surprised me right from the start, and still continues to amaze me. You really have to walk on eggshells if you want to participate at any level in a conversation or any social gathering. It is very important to be very aware of your surroundings, and it amazes me how Japanese people in general seem to do it so effortlessly. It seems like they are always several steps ahead in any social interaction. I did learn a lot about treating the other respectfully, in a very different way than I am used to at home in Europe, even though it feels like deep down there is a lot of common ground.

Yakuza street fighter aggressively showing off his tattoo in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo

The police and media call the Yakuza a “violent groups”, while the Yakuza refer to themselves as “chivalrous organisations”. In your opinion, are either of these titles true?

I can say it is true that the police and media call them that, and it is also true that many Yakuza think of themselves as chivalrous organizations. What I have witnessed is that it is a delicate mix of the two, the bad and the good part, and that the Yakuza have mastered the art of walking that thin line of not being so overtly bad that they would be hunted down immediately, and also not so good so that they would lose their pressure power. It is a very complicated mix of many things, making them very hard to persecute. And they know that very well. They are masters of being "shades of grey" as opposed to "black and white".

Members of different families paying their respects at the funeral service for Miyamoto-san, a member of the Yakuza

In your blog, you talk about hating an image you liked five minutes previously according to your mood. Are there any real stand out pictures for you?

Did I really? I don't seem to remember that one! But yes, an image from YAKUZA that stands out for me, has stood out since the beginning, and still continues to stand out, is the dark blue image of Boss Nitto-san in the back seat of his car looking straight in the camera. I will always remember this moment because it was in the beginning, the very first time I was riding with them all alone (I don't speak Japanese), and I had no idea what to expect. My contact, who was driving the car, gestured to me in broken English "Picture, OK", but the Boss in the back seat looked so menacingly at me that I hardly dared to bring my camera up to my eye, and out of sheer nervousness I pressed the shutter too soon, chopping off half of his face in the frame; afterwards realizing that this "mistake" actually made the image so unique for me.

Boss Nitto-san, while driving to Niigata prison to píck up two members of the family that had been released that morning

On your website, you go into great detail about the process of creating the book. Why was it so important to you to have the book bound in such a certain way? 

Not only the binding, but the whole process is/was important to me. I love books as objects and this project has always been destined to also become at least one book (yes, maybe there are more to come… shhh) so I like to go into detail about different parts of the book making process, and my experiences along the way. I had a Japanese book in my collection that was bound in the "otabind 'layflat' hot melt stitched" way, which allows the book to be opened all the way and laid flat, without the back of the book breaking. I knew instantly I needed that one. Also the paper; Japan has always had a great tradition of bookmaking, photo books in particular, with many young people experimenting with beautiful things. I think trying to realise a book will always be a crucial part in whatever photo project I pursue.

In a covert training camp, young Yakuza recruits line up every morning at 5.00 a.m. on the beach to have a moment of meditation, led by master Samurai swordsman Nakata Sensei, before they start their daily training routine of close combat fighting, bodyguard training, and knife practice.

The book has already sold out, which must feel amazing, but you mention that the project is “not in any way over” – where do you see it going from here?

In short? Besides the new long term project, unrelated to the Yakuza which I am now starting up, there is, specifically with the Yakuza, a documentary film planned, a second book about a specific sub-topic within that family, and another 893 Magazine issue. If it all works out to plan, touch wood!  And after that, I think I'll need a nice little rest.

To see more of 'Odo Yakuza Tokyo' and Kuster’s work, visit his website here.

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