Photographing the Yakuza Gangs of Japan

After nearly 10 months of negotiations, Belgian photographer Anton Kusters was finally allowed to photograph one of the most feared Yakuza families of Japan. Starting in early 2009 he spent two years photographing them, bringing back images that give a rare insight into one of the world’s most dreaded criminal gangs. The Economist shares his story:

The Yakuza gangs of Japan have more than 50,000 members, making them one of the largest organized criminal networks in the world. Estimates put their income in excess of $80 bn. The name Ya-ku-za, stands for 8-9-3, which is a losing combination in a card game very similar to Blackjack. They are rumored to have originated from masterless Samurais or Rōnins in the early 17th century. These Rōnins grouped together to form families that emerged as the Yakuza of today.

photographing the Yakuza

A typical Yakuza tattoo

As fearsome as they are, the Yakuza maintains a strict code of discipline and hierarchy. The chain of command goes downward in a strict order of hierarchy starting from the Socho, or the number one. Apologies are often a brutal, self-inflicted wound. You’re expected to cut off a portion of your finger—usually the little finger for first time offenders—and present it to your boss wrapped neatly in a white napkin.

photographing the Yakuza

Punishments are brutal in the families

The reason for this? Back in the old days when you held a sword, the little finger and the ring finger gave you the firm grip, which is essential for maneuvering the sword in a fight. Not having a portion of your little finger meant you would not be able to grip a sword tightly, leaving you vulnerable and dependent on the remaining members of the group. Kusters shares many such interesting facts about the Yakuza.

Kusters’ images give us a glimpse into the shady world of these families. Over the course of his stay with them, he was able to gather the trust and confidence of the family. It enabled him to photograph them at a personal level.

photographing the Yakuza

many of Kusters’ images are shot from a very personal level

Toward the end of the project, when Kusters was in his home in Europe, he received a call that a high ranking family member had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital. Kusters arrived later to photograph the funeral. He was even asked to photograph the deceased lying in his coffin, something that he later realized to be extremely sensitive.

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