Anton Kusters, in the shadow of Japanese Yakuza

4 Mars 2014

How did it come to you to immersed yourself in the Yakuza circle ?

The reason why I started is – as it always seems to be for me – a very personal one. I live in Belgium, and my brother lives in Japan, and I was looking for a way to do a project together... so I would have an excuse and the possibility to go to Japan more often to visit him and his family. He's a marketing expert and I'm a photographer, so we believed it must be possible. One night in Kabukicho, Tokyo we were having a beer and discussing this, and at that precise moment a member of the Yakuza walked in the bar. We instantly knew this had to be it. Our friend and fixer Taka-san, the bar owner, introduced us and we spent 10 months negotiating getting permission to photograph them for 2 years.

How did you manage to convince Yakuza to accept you among them for a few weeks ?

It was much more than “a few weeks”…. My brother and I negotiated for 10 months to gain trust and access. After it was agreed that I could photograph, I spent two years with them to photograph. I think we succeeded because we were patient and wanted to learn about them, and because I made clear that this was an artistic project (with a published photo book and exhibitions). It was not going to be a journalistic project.

The Yakuza project is not your first project, you presented Sugar, Heavens or Dislocate before. How it is artistically unique and different ?

To be correct, Yakuza is my first project… yes, I did a small work “Sugar” before that, but I never published this (maybe in the future?). Heavens and Dislocate are not over yet and are still happening now as we speak. Artistically all my projects might be very different (or very similar), as in my opinion the story dictates to me also my approach, both in actual photography as in thinking about. I do way more "thinking about", much more than "making images"… the approach is something I feel when I talk/think about the story.

For example, with Heavens the approach is completely conceptual, with Yakuza it is documentary. For that same reason I also use different cameras and precessing all the time. I cannot say that my approach is the only or the best approach, it is just the way i feel I should tell the particular story I want to tell. My projects always have a common denominator that is very personal and close to me: Sugar was my godchild, Yakuza my brother, Heavens my grandfather, Dislocate my close family. Even though stylistically they are quite different, the common denominator always seems to be the same: someone close to me.

This experience was is something very intimate, were you close to Yakuza or did you prefer to keep a proper distance to be more objective?

Of course the experience was very intimate as they trusted me into their inner circle… The most intimate moment was the funeral of one of the high ranking bosses Miyamoto-san. I never became close to them as in “making friends” as there was always a distance. I had many conversations and grew a close understanding with Souichirou, my contact from within the Yakuza (he is a mid level ranking boss). It was he who taught me how to behave and be polite in the Japanese way, and with him I discussed the project many times so he would understand how I was telling the story. There is absolutely no objectivity in my story about the Yakuza, as I am not a journalist or a scholar.

I know nothing about the Yakuza, other than that they are a large and very closed organised crime family. I try to ask questions, I don’t try to find answers... I chose to see and experience their world and not to make any opinion or judgement. The images I show in the project are a visual representation of me documenting what I see, what I feel, and maybe what I learned along the way. It is a peek inside a closed sub culture by a western photographer who knows he will never be able to fully understand why things are happening the way they do.

What was the most striking encounter for you ?

The funeral of Miyamoto-san, which was a very intimate buddhist funeral over several days.

When you were immersed in this environment, what was your vision about the Japanese culture and society ?

My vision on Japanese culture and society was not really relevant at that time, I was too busy photographing the Yakuza…. Of course the Yakuza can only exist exactly in Japanese culture, as any other organised crime across the globe is specific to the culture they are a part of (or separated from).

The Yakuza have many things in common with the Japanese culture, that is why they are so integrated into that culture. They don’t hide, they are “one leg in, one leg out” of society so to speak, and that makes things very difficult, not only for them, but also for Japanese society. If there is one thing I learned is that it is a very complicated matter, one that I will never fully understand.