In the West, there's the mafia. In Japan, it's the yakuza.
The yakuza is an integral part of society but — unlike other crime organizations — it doesn't operate entirely in secret. Yakuza are often well-known in their neighborhoods and have plainly marked public offices. In fact, Business Insider has reported how they quickly offered aid in the wake of Japan's recent natural disasters — faster than even the Japanese government.
But it has a heavy hand in all the obvious things — like crime and prostitution. And The New York Times estimated in 2010 that it controlled approximately 22 trillion yen (back then, about $242 billion).
A yakuza walked into a small bar in Tokyo that Belgium-based photographer Anton Kusters was patronizing with his brother. The bartender explained what the yakuza was and warned that members should be treated with the utmost respect.
After 10 months of negotiations, Kusters was granted access to the yakuza and spent two years photographing while simultaneously learning its customs (such as yubitsume: the amputation of parts of one's finger for misbehavior). The second edition of his book, Odo Yakuza Tokyo, was published last year. He shares a few of his photos with The Picture Show and answers a few questions.
The Picture Show: So exactly how much influence does the yakuza have — culturally and economically speaking?
Anton Kusters: I'm not an expert on the yakuza. I did not do any research before embarking on this project. In part, because it is impossible to know the real impact of the yakuza, but mainly because my project is not a journalistic one: It is a conceptual documentary project showing the impressions that I had as an outsider being allowed to witness and photograph their closed world for two years. ...
That said, I'm told that the yakuza have an extremely big influence on Japanese society as a whole; their economic influence alone is estimated between 2 and 3 percent of Japan's GNP.
Did you ever get into trouble for how you acted, intentionally or otherwise?
Because I was actively taught how to behave by Soichiro, my [steward] within the yakuza, and everybody knew this was happening, I did not get into trouble. ... [It took 10 months of] negotiating with them to gain their trust and be allowed access ... before the project ever started.
How much are you allowed to divulge about what you saw and experienced?
During the negotiations I proposed and we agreed to work with the "two thumbs up" approach ... both parties have the right to veto any image for any publication.
This not only gave them the confidence to allow me to witness and photograph everything (because they knew they would be able to see and decide later), but also showed them that I ... could also not be "pushed around by them" to publish images I myself would not agree to.
This led to a balanced bidirectional relationship. ... Over the course of two years, there has been not one single image that they did not agree to. The moment they understood the artistic direction of the images and the story I was telling, the book I was creating, they knew my intentions were not journalistic but artistic.
Do you think the photos in your book humanize the yakuza?
... I cannot control, and I would never wish to control, which or how people assign value to my photographs. That is up to them. I am fully aware that certain people will think certain things about the images and draw conclusions.
I guess it is important to know that my intention is NOT to show any opinion on the yakuza (even though I am obviously opposed to violence in any shape or form), but in an as open-minded way as possible to show the feelings and impressions that I encountered during those two years, as best as I can, using my still crude ability to use the symbolism and language of photography.