Yakuza Photo Essay

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.

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

    Photographs by Anton Kusters give a general impression of the yakuza lifestyle.

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

  • Courtesy of Anton Kusters

Japan is known for its low crime rate and absence of corruption. According to the OECD, the country has the second lowest homicide rate of any member state in 2012 (after tiny Iceland), with just 0.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.

The one infamous exception is the Japanese organized crime syndicates known as the Yakuza. These groups have a long history in Japanese society, going back at least to the 18th century and are known for their strict hierarchy, traditions and political connections. Most major Yakuza families operate as legal “associations,” can be found in the phone book and advertise their hangouts with bronze placards. According to The Economist, some Yakuza members even carry business cards and have pension plans. Although the number has fallen steadily over the last decades, there are apparently still around 53,500 registered members today.

The Yakuza continue to make up the majority of Japan’s organized crime. Although each organization has specific rules regarding their activities, various Yakuza groups are behind a majority of drug smuggling, human trafficking, and extortion taking place in Japan. Furthermore, in order to evade unwanted attention from the authorities, many Yakuza organizations are becoming more involved in harder-to-trace financial crimes.

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The legality of the Yakuza organizations is based on two factors. First, Japanese organized crime has a history of close relations with politics: during Japan’s turbo-charged modernization, they reached deep into the economy. After World War II they grew powerful in black markets. Their might peaked in the 1960s with an estimated membership of 184,000. At their zenith, the Yakuza had strong links to conservative politicians and were used by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s post-war political behemoth, to break up unions and left-wing demonstrations. Such ties may not have completely faded.

Secondly, one of the often-quoted reasons on why Japan has so little visible crime is due to the Yakuza’s influence. The major crime families keep drug dealers and other unpleasantries hidden in order to avoid confrontations with the police. As long as the Yakuza’s activities don’t harm anyone outside the criminal underworld, they are mostly tolerated by the government. As The Economist states, “Japan seems to prefer organized crime to the disorganized alternative.”

Furthermore, the Yakuza try to portray themselves as a benevolent force in society. Different Yakuza groups organize charities, give to the poor and homeless, and even host neighborhood parties for children. The Yakuza even helped organize a rapid relief effort after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, something that was contrasted with the government’s slow reaction.

However, few things are more dangerous than when mob families go to war. The largest Yakuza crime family, the Yamaguchi-gumi, has recently fractured: Thirteen smaller clans affiliated with the organization split from the group, apparently after disagreements on how it should move forward. The Yamaguchi-gumi had 10,400 members in 44 prefectures as of the end of 2014. The number would be 23,400 if quasi-members were included, accounting for 43.7 percent of all organized crime members in Japan. This split has caused alarm in the Japanese government, which fears a mob war in Japan’s underworld.

This fear seems to have been vindicated. According to the Asahi Shimbun, both the Yamaguchi-gumi and the thirteen splinter groups have been busy buying up weapons and lining up hitmen. The first shots in this mob war might have already been fired outside a hot spring facility in Iida, Nagano Prefecture. The 43-year-old man who was shot and killed outside a bathhouse on October 6 wanted to leave a Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate and join the newly formed rival organization consisting of the rebel gangs.

In what might be retaliation for this murder, a boss in the original Yamaguchi-gumi was killed on Sunday. Tatsuyuki Hishida was found tied up in his apartment after being bludgeoned to death. Police report that the killing was most likely in response to the Yamaguchi-gumi’s split.

The Japanese government has good reason to fear a gang war. Between 1985 and 1987, 25 Yakuza members were killed and around 70 were injured in a feud involving affiliated rival gangs. That bloodshed was triggered in part over disagreement over who should become the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi. A few years ago, another war broke out between two rival gangs on the southern island of Kyushu, in which mobsters attacked each other with machine guns and grenades.

Japanese politics needs to get rid of the Yakuza. Perhaps it’s time for the government to make them an offer they can’t refuse.

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