At the Heart of Yakuza with Photographer Anton Kusters

Being granted exclusive access to usually inaccessible subcultures is probably the dream of many artists. Belgian photographer and co-founder of BURN Magazine Anton Kusters made it real when he spent some time in Tokyo with members of Yakuza, the notorious Japanese crime syndication.

A recent video from The Economist chronicles this unique photographic project. Watching it reminded me that as a kid, I was fascinated by Yakuza’s members iconic tattoos and its culture of fear and discipline (and the katana blades, of course).

Yakuza street fighter aggressively showing off his tattoo in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo - 2010

Delicate and even moving moments portrayed by Kusters’ camera seem to be out of tune when we remember that we’re dealing with mobsters. Yet, as he recalls, this is not a “black” versus “white” world. It’s an underground and yet very visible culture that took 10 months of negotiation to enter. Between 2009 and 2011 Anton and his brother were allowed to meet families of the secretive organised crime: this encounter understandably ended up being a totally different experience from what Kusters, up to that moment exposed to Yakuza only through popular culture, thought it would have been.

Anton Kusters, "Odo Yakuza Tokyo", Second Edition, Published Sept 2011

The photographer describes his work as a personal visual account, whose memories are as vivid as reportage literature. Just like when he met the godfather himself: “It’s like I literally feel the boundaries, the implicit expectations, and I am slowly learning when I can move forward, and when to best hold back. Sitting at the table with a bodyguard looking straight through me, I drink from my iced coffee. I’m feeling the acute sensation of walking on eggshells.”

The three highest ranking bosses of the family - the Godfather in the centre - pose for a portrait during a traditional dinner at a restaurant in Kabukicho, Tokyo - 2009

Needless to say, the project grew bigger and bigger: it led to the publication of a photographic book titled Odo Yakuza Tokyo, and later became an exhibit at C-Mine Cultural Centre in Genk, Belgium (you can watch a video walkthrough here). Yakuza is definitely worth checking, if only to have a different and more intimate perspective on a phenomenon usually portrayed in cinema, literature and video games.