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Toronto, Ontario, Canada
"To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life." ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Yakuza Project ~ by Photographer Anton Kusters

Anton Kusters spent two years with the Japanese mafia. This was his very first project.

The Belgium photographer spent several months embedded in the Japanese underworld, taking photos of Yakuza as they went about their business. The outstanding images are featured in his outstanding debut book – Odo Yakuza Tokyo.

So how exactly did a Belgium photographer get to meet Tokyo’s boss of bosses, take photos in the back street brothels, and follow around a bunch of criminals doing a bunch of criminal Shit?  The short answer is Taka-san – the proprietor of a hole-in-the-wall bar in Golden Gai. The paired struck up a friendship, Taka-san knew some people, they knew some people, and before long Kusters was getting invited into a world few outsiders have ever witnessed, let alone photographed.

As he explains, “[The people I photographed] want to have a kind of a chronicle of their family, a chronicle of what they are about, [that’s why I was allowed in] … I do not want to be a judge in my photography. I want to be a witness in my photography.”

“The Yakuza project actually quickly turned into something different than I expected, I started to feel that [the Yakuza] is a way of life more than anything else… that the Yakuza is many shades of grey, and not simple black vs white. The subtle shades are the key.”

Odo Yakuza Tokyo is available to purchase online. You can see more images and purchase the book via antonkusters.com. [via lifelounge.com]

"Through 10 months of negotiations with the Shinseikai, my brother Malik and I became one of the only westerners ever to be granted this kind of access to the closed world of Japanese organized crime.
With a mix of photography, film, writing and graphic design, I try to share not only their complex relationship to Japanese society, but also to show the personal struggle of being forced to live in two different worlds at the same time; worlds that often have conflicting morals and values. It turns out not to be a simple ‘black’ versus ‘white’ relationship, but most definitely one with many, many, many shades of grey." ~ Anton Kusters

*click on images for a larger view*

Anton's speaks about his outstanding Yakuza Project

Centuries ago in the days of the Shogun, Japan's authorities would mark criminals with tattoos to distinguish them from the rest of the population.
 These highly visible tattoos usually took the form of a black ring around the arm; with rings added as convictions increased.
These marked men were usually discriminated against so they tended to stick together, eventually forming the organized, mafia-style gangs now known as"Yakuza". They are worn proudly as symbols of status and dedication.

The major yakuza syndicates have at least 80,000 official members, making them one of the world’s largest criminal organizations.

Although exact figures are unknown, the yakuza are estimated to earn billions of dollars each year from their illicit activities.

The commercial sex industry in Japan is so successful that the United States Department of State has designated it “one of the world’s top designations for sex trafficking of foreign women.”

Yubitsume, or the cutting of one's finger, is a form of penance or apology. Upon a first offence, the transgressor must cut off the tip of his left little finger and hand the severed portion to his boss. Sometimes an underboss may do this in penance to the oyabun if he wants to spare a member of his own gang from further retaliation.

Its origin stems from the traditional way of holding a Japanese sword. The bottom three fingers of each hand are used to grip the sword tightly, with the thumb and index fingers slightly loose. The removal of digits starting with the little finger moving up the hand to the index finger progressively weakens a person's sword grip.

The idea is that a person with a weak sword grip then has to rely more on the group for protection—reducing individual action. In recent years, prosthetic fingertips have been developed to disguise this distinctive appearance.

In the mood for some more Japanese gangsters? Check out two of my favourite Yakuza flicks

Anton's camera bag and the gear he brought with him to Japan:

• pack of paper hankerchiefs, a lens cloth
• any random palstic bag
• woolen cap, a super lightweight raincoat
• “pocket communicator”: crucial for situations when you don’t speak the local language and need help
• passport and credit card and other necessary travel/ID docs
• extra batteries
• flash (**with a band-aide affixed to it to reduce flash intensity and warm up flash colour)
• secondary camera (set up as rangefinder)
• main camera (Leica M9) with just one lens (35mm f1.4)
• pens & pencils, markers, little notebook
• memory cards
• audio recorder
• super dooper business cards with images of his work (extremely important in Japan)
• mini tripod
• Crumpler The Hoax bag with insert added


  1. I met an old yakuza in a sushi bar in Shimbashi (in Tokyo, where I live) who proudly showed me his somewhat shorter than normal little finger ... He had a terrible green suit on but a $25,000 watch (retirement present...??) and proceeded to try to get me and my Japanese friends to "go out clubbing in Ginza" (near by). Ummmm.... I don't think so.

    1. I would love to have seen this guy in person! He sounds like quite a character. I don't think anyone can pull off wearing a green suit! haha!

      Thanks for visiting my blog!