Access all areas: a photojournalist’s two years with the Yakuza

I love this sort of reporting. Journalists going above and beyond to get a unique story, I especially love the sort of “access all areas”  (however carefully stage managed by the subject) feature, when the subject is something that happens behind doors that are usually well and truly closed to the public.

This photographer named Anton Kusters embedded himself in the life of a Japanese Yakuza crime family, producing a series of photos for an art exhibition and book. He blogged his way through the project here.

I arrive early. I’ve hitched a ride with two young recruits who will be trained here. I have no idea where we are, other than that we are at the beach somewhere, several hours away from Tokyo. We park the car and head on to the compound.

It’s a regular little seaside town, and the place we’re staying in is a traditional Japanese guest house. We walk up to the late Miyamoto-san, who is in charge of the annual organization, and greet him. He’s going over the daily routine together with Tanaka-sensei.

Tanaka-sensei is a master swordsman and martial arts teacher, who has fought in the Afghan war in the 1980′s by training the Mujahedin in different combat and sword fighting techniques. He is here to teach the recruits meditation techniques, unarmed and armed combat, and bodyguard practice.


There are a couple of images at these links that may or may not be disturbing – so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying the book or anything…

I can never figure out why, apart from an overdeveloped sense of their own grandeur or significance, a career criminal, or a criminal organisation, would want the exposure that attention like this brings.


“In the hotel bar I am only slowly starting to understand the minutial social order that is continuously happening within the Yakuza, the micro-expressions on the faces, the gestures, the voices and intonations, the body language. Everything seems to be strictly organized but at the same time seems to come naturally: strangely, I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do, where to sit, when to talk or when to shut up… it’s like I feel the boundaries, the implicit expectations, and I am slowly learning when I can do, and when to best hold back.”

Kusters describes the experience at some length here… – again, one of the slide show images will probably not be your cup of tea – so I’ve put the good quotes below.

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 this guy 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 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 acted like a CEO, 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.

Shoichrio 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. But he was a lot chattier than Kaichou, 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.

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 hammering 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. It took 100 hours to complete. They called him “The Master of All Pains.”

Crazy stuff.

It reminds me a bit of Gang Leader for a Day – which is an excellent book about the economic and sociological structure of an American street gang…