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…

Insanity prevails

The internet is atwitter (it’d be abuzz if Google’s social networking effort didn’t suck quite so much) with news that the Insane Clown Posse, famously shocking shock rockers who fuse professional wrestling, abhorrent lyrics about sex and gangster violence with clown make up and circus garb, have been covert Christians for 20 years, trying to bring people to Jesus through the power of gangster. If true they are the poster boys for “contextualisation” gone wrong.

Read a couple of articles… like this one, and this one, tell me what you think. There are lyrical clues in some of their songs. But they are alongside such gems as:

“She hit me in the balls. I grabbed her by her neck. And I bounced her off the walls. She said it was an accident and then apologised. But I still took my elbow and blackened both her eyes”

Which is apparently satire.


“Barrels in your mouth/bullets to your head/The back of your neck’s all over the shed/Boomshacka boom chop chop bang.”

Here’s their testimony in a newly released single to clear up years of “mystery” surrounding the clues they’ve dropped over the course of their career, including a six album series.

“F*** it, we got to tell.

All secrets will now be told

No more hidden messages

…Truth is we follow GOD!!!

We’ve always been behind him

The carnival is GOD

And may all juggalos find him

We’re not sorry if we tricked you.”

Interesting. Undercover gangster rapper agents might not have been quite what Paul had in mind when he spoke of being all things to all men. But here’s the rationale from the two insane clowns:

“You have to speak their language. You have to interest them, gain their trust, talk to them and show you’re one of them. You’re a person from the street and you speak of your experiences. Then at the end you can tell them: God has helped me.”

Even the journalist writing that article could spot a problem with the logic:

“Of course, one might argue that 20 years was, under the circumstances, an incredibly long time for them to have pretended to be unholy, and that, from a Christian perspective, the harm they did while feigning unholiness may even have outweighed the greater good.”

If you’re curious to see what undercover Christian gangster rappers look and sound like, here’s a video from one of their more overtly “Christian” songs. I haven’t listened to the words yet, but doubtless it needs a language warning (as do those links).

Yakuza on Yakuza 3

A gonzo journalist who spent twelve years getting to know the ins and outs of the Japanese organised crime gangs, the Yakuza, managed to sit three bona fide gangsters down to play Yakuza 3 – a Playstation game.

They seemed to enjoy the experience. The interview is here, and it’s pretty fascinating.

“M: A real fight–it’s short and it’s brutal. Over in a minute. Nobody goes around trading blows and crap like that. Usually the first guy to punch wins.
K: I like that you can grab things like ashtrays or billboards and beat the crap out of the punks bothering you. Or smash their faces into car windows. That’s what you’d really do in a fight, grab something and use it as a weapon.
S: Why doesn’t he just shoot them?
K: That would be unrealistic. Nobody is going to waste a bullet on some street punk, like the ones that keep bugging Kiyru.
M: If they wanted to make it realistic, he’d pull out a gun and shoot it and miss! Or the damn thing wouldn’t fire. That would be realistic. (They all laugh).
K: Shooting people sends a message.
M: So does shooting anything. Shooting people gets you sent to jail.
K: That’s part of the job description. ”

Cook like a mafioso

At some point in my past, at a time when I was considering writing a mafia novel, I purchased a copy of “the Mafia Cookbook.” It was a series of recipes for traditional Italian meals (not anything more sinister than that). I read it, and a bunch of “true crime” testimonies of Mafioso turned state’s informer. I still might write it one day – though I see that the plotline I had mapped out in my head of two brothers taking very divergent career paths is now the basis of a Showtime Television series. One of the brothers in my story was going to be a man of the cloth… but I digress.

Had I the intention of cooking like a mafioso I would totally use one of these