Inside the World of Yakuza: An Interview with Anton Kusters

Anton Kusters is a Belgian photographer (and graphic/web designer), who currently feels most at ease expressing himself in a visual way through photographs, words and even videos.

‘I live for the journey, and hope I can still make a few of those, given this precious little time I get to walk this earth. And of course I hope I can share my stories…’

Kusters is the first Westerner who gained access in the world of Yakuza, the most notorious organized criminal group in Japan. But how did he able to enter the Yakuza world?

‘We were patient and negotiated for a long time to gain trust and access. My brother (who lives in Tokyo and speaks Japanese) and I talked for about 10 months with Souichirou, our contact and member of the Yakuza family I hoped to photograph. It was definitely not easy, but there were some crucial things that helped gain the necessary mutual trust to actually start the project. First and foremost was the fact that I set out to make a documentary story, not a journalistic one. That and also the fact that I wanted to take my time – two years – to photograph them so that I could learn and try to understand the Japanese culture and by extension the Yakuza sub culture, made a huge difference to them. Once they realised I was not a reporter looking for a quick sensational story, but that I was an artist looking to show what I felt being witness inside an unknown closed world for a longer time, and creating a photo book and an exhibit out of it, they slowly started seeing that my approach was different. After ten months of negotiating, we gained access and I started making images.’

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Nitto-san sits in the back of a car en route to the Niigata prison to pick up two yakuza members, who would be released from prison that morning. (C) ANTON KUSTERS

‘The most unforgettable experience would definitely be the funeral of Miyamoto-san, one of the senior bosses of the family, who died of a stroke. I went to visit him in the hospital – he was in a coma, never to awake again – and paid my respects. In turn, the family asked me to attend the funeral, which happened the next days. It was an intimate buddhist ritual that normally I would never have ever been allowed to witness, be part of, or let alone photograph.’

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Funeral of Miyamoto-san, one of the senior bosses of the family. (C) ANTON KUSTERS

‘I don’t think I would like to catalog the experience (or parts of the experience) of photographing the Yakuza as “good” or “bad”… I would rather state that I experienced many things, and that I am grateful for all of them… I had the chance to witness an extremely closed organized crime family, learn about a totally unique and new subculture (at least to me), and I was able to gain respect and trust from them, simply for one thing: my artistic expression…. to this day, I feel like grateful for this chance I got. Besides that, I’ve also learned a lot in regards to human interaction and foreign culture, and I’ve become so much closer to my own family and friends along the way.’

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Yakuza recruits line up at the beach every morning to have a moment of meditation before they start their daily training routine of close combat fighting, bodyguard training, and knife practice. (C) ANTON KUSTERS

‘It is not my place as a photographer to judge the Yakuza. They are criminals for sure, and they know that themselves also. But this is not the point here. They chose their path in life, and that is their business, not mine. They are also human, just like everybody else. My photos do not intend in any way to pass judgement upon them, be it good or bad. Any interpretation of my images one way or the other, is in the eye of the viewer, and the eye of the viewer only… as it should always be.’

kusters odo yakuza tokyo

Members of the Shinseikai family stand guard outside a restaurant where the bosses are eating dinner. (C) ANTON KUSTERS

‘In this project I do not force an opinion on my viewers through my images… as in life I try hard not to judge…. because who am I to judge another human being? And yes, indeed… maybe the viewer is left with even more questions than he/she had before seeing this work… I know I often am… the world to me seems to be not black & white anymore, but many shades of grey. In short: I cannot say if I see goodness in them or not. I can only see that they are human.’

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Yamamoto Kaicho, a number two boss, lies as master Tattooist Hori Sensei completes his full body tattoo. (C) ANTON KUSTERS

Kusters said that this project is special because it brought his family physically together. ‘This project is special to me because the reason I started it…. which was a tiny personal reason: I wanted to be able to visit my brother more often in Japan… My sister and my mother live close to me, but my brother lives literally 9300km away… And this project brought us physically closer together. Family is always a good reason to start a project…’

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Traditional Japanese tattoos, often seen on the bodies of the yakuza, are done manually with several sharp, inked needles. (C) ANTON KUSTERS

‘I learned a lot about how to collaborate with my subjects (not just the Yakuza, but my subjects in general). I learned how to work together, how to give back, learned how to gain and keep trust from the people I photograph, and most of all, learned how to be patient and open-minded as much as I can.’

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Men shower in an Onsen, a typical Japanese bath house, after playing in a golf tournament. Some bath houses in Japan deny access to those with tattoos, in an effort to stop yakuza from frequenting them. (C) ANTON KUSTERS

Kusters is now on his next projects, dealing with two stories. ‘Two stories: one dealing with the Holocaust called “Heavens”, and one dealing with being homesick and finding where one belongs, called “I Was a Dog”… www.antonkusters.com

Personal message for the blog: ‘Be patient, know what you want, be patient, work very hard, and be patient. And most of all, when you want to jump, don’t let fear hold you back… you WILL land safely, whatever happens… trust me.”

Follow Anton Kusters photography by visiting his website www.antonkusters.com

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