In 2011 I interviewed Anton Kusters about his Oda Yakuza project in which he was granted access to photograph the Kabukicho, Tokyo based branch of the Yakuza over two years. For a foreign photographer to get this level of exposure to the yakuza was unheard of. The images are startling and draw you into a world that is rarely seen and even more rarely understood. We are re-publishing this article to run alongside a new interview with Anton, almost five years later, to see where the project has led.

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What made you decide to start this project?

The simple curiosity of my brother Malik and I when a guy wearing a tailored suit walked into a bar where we were having a drink. The bartender, a friend of ours, told us that this was a member of the Yakuza. We were both looking for a project to do together (I am a photographer and he is a marketing expert), and then the guy walked in.

Members pose in the streets of Kabukicho, the red light district in the heart of Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan. By always wearing tailored suits, the Yakuza attempt to spread an image of decency and conformity. But the underlying tension unmistakibly remains. Obvious influences are American gangster icons from the early 20th century, like John Dillinger - 2009

Members pose in the streets of Kabukicho, the red light district in the heart of Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan. By always wearing tailored suits, the Yakuza attempt to spread an image of decency and conformity. But the underlying tension unmistakibly remains. Obvious influences are American gangster icons from the early 20th century, like John Dillinger – 2009

Could you explain which part of the Yakuza you were working with, their name and where they are based?

I was following the family that controls Kabukicho in Tokyo. Kabukicho is the oldest red light district in Tokyo, in the absolute centre. I followed mainly the bosses, but also the middle and the young recruits. I cannot say the name of the family for safety concerns, but their “credo” is “odo” which means “the way of the cherry blossom”. The family has about 1,200 members (the yakuza in total in Japan has about 86,000 members)

 

Nitto-san, Souichirou's direct boss, in the back of the car, while driving to Niigata prison to go and pick up two members of the family that are being released from prison that morning, after being incarcerated for several years - 2009

Nitto-san, Souichirou’s direct boss, in the back of the car, while driving to Niigata prison to go and pick up two members of the family that are being released from prison that morning, after being incarcerated for several years – 2009

 

How did you go about contacting the Yakuza in Tokyo successfully to complete this project? Were they immediately open to the idea or was it hard work to get them to agree?

It was extremely hard work to get them to agree. It took my brother and I about ten months of negotiations before we were allowed access. We really had to convince them that our intentions were open, and that we wanted to document their family for two years. Once they agreed, everything went very quickly.

Yamamoto kaicho and two other members shower in an Onsen (typical Japanese bath house) after playing in a golf tournament. Both golf and frequent visits to the onsen are very popular amongst the Japanese. Nowadays, many bath houses carry signs that deny access to people who have tattoos, in an effort to stop Yakuza frequenting them - 2009

Yamamoto kaicho and two other members shower in an Onsen (typical Japanese bath house) after playing in a golf tournament. Both golf and frequent visits to the onsen are very popular amongst the Japanese. Nowadays, many bath houses carry signs that deny access to people who have tattoos, in an effort to stop Yakuza frequenting them – 2009

How long and how frequently were you working with the yakuza for on this project? Would you just shadow them or did you engineer situations to get the images?

I photographed for two years. It was not continuously, but for periods of time I would be present and just be “a fly on the wall”. In the book there is I think only one posed photograph, so situations were never engineered or tampered with. The pretense was pure documentary, witness.

Yamamoto Kaicho, the number two boss, lies still as master Tattooist Hori Sensei completes his full body tattoo. Completing a tattoo takes about 100 hours, and a schedule of daily or weekly visits with the tattoo sensei are made. This is the second time he is being tattooed over his whole body, after the removal of his first full body tattoo severl years before. Tattoos are made by hand in a traditional way, and only few experts still possess the skill to do so - 2009

Yamamoto Kaicho, the number two boss, lies still as master Tattooist Hori Sensei completes his full body tattoo. Completing a tattoo takes about 100 hours, and a schedule of daily or weekly visits with the tattoo sensei are made. This is the second time he is being tattooed over his whole body, after the removal of his first full body tattoo severl years before. Tattoos are made by hand in a traditional way, and only few experts still possess the skill to do so – 2009

Are they any incidents or anecdotes from your time amongst the yakuza that particularly stand out in your memory?

The funeral must have been the most important moment in those two years of photographing. While I was in Belgium, my brother Malik called me that a senior member had suffered a stroke and was dying. I dropped everything and flew on the next plane to Tokyo. There I visited him for three days in a row, he was in a coma and would never recover. He did three days later, and his girlfriend and brother then allowed me to witness and photograph the funeral, which was a three-day traditional Japanese funeral, very intimate.

A senior member of the Odo clan ostentatively shows his hand with missing digits on two fingers. To lend weight to his apology for a wrongdoing, one severs a digit from his own hand with a knife, while the person he is apologizing to watches, and subsequently offers the severed digit as a token of his apology. Nowadays, this is still commonplace within the Yakuza - 2009

A senior member of the Odo clan ostentatively shows his hand with missing digits on two fingers. To lend weight to his apology for a wrongdoing, one severs a digit from his own hand with a knife, while the person he is apologizing to watches, and subsequently offers the severed digit as a token of his apology. Nowadays, this is still commonplace within the Yakuza – 2009

Is the project now totally completed in which case would you consider documenting the yakuza again in some way?

The first phase of the project is completed. Now my brother and I are negotiating again for a second step, to make a documentary film about the family. We hope we will get permission.

Family members meeting out on the street in front of the clubs they control - 2009

Family members meeting out on the street in front of the clubs they control – 2009

So far you have released parts of your project through your photography magazine and through a very limited print run on your book, is that all there has been so far?

Yes indeed. Right now there is a second edition of the book ODO YAKUZA TOKYO in print and available on my website. Other plans are for a large exhibition installation, but I have to keep the details of that a secret a little longer.

An erotic danser picks up fake 2-dollar bills during a private dance with a Yakuza customer in a strip tease bar in Kabukicho, a bar which is controlled by the ODO family - 2010

An erotic danser picks up fake 2-dollar bills during a private dance with a Yakuza customer in a strip tease bar in Kabukicho, a bar which is controlled by the ODO family – 2010

Did you learn anything substantial about life or yourself through your project? It must have felt quite intimidating or dangerous at times?

I learned that it was important to be open in regards to your intentions, to follow through if you make a promise, and to work hard and be patient for result will come out of that. It was at times intimidating, but I learned a lot from it, understanding slowly what to expect and to be proactive and understanding in different situations.

Yakuza street fighter aggressively showing off his tattoo in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo - 2010

Yakuza street fighter aggressively showing off his tattoo in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo – 2010

Have you made any lasting, personal relationships with any of the subjects involved in the project?

They are, and always will be, Yakuza… of course you grow and get to know each other over the course of those years, and most likely we will never forget one another. But there is no contact with them whatsoever outside of the project.

The two bosses highest in rank in the ODO family, having coffee at a hotel bar, after it has been completely cleared first, for safety reasons. Here they are flanked by several strategically positioned bodyguards - 2009

The two bosses highest in rank in the ODO family, having coffee at a hotel bar, after it has been completely cleared first, for safety reasons. Here they are flanked by several strategically positioned bodyguards – 2009

What are your next projects? Will it be a clean break from this work or a continuation?

There are a few options… All of them are a clean break, and maybe will go completely the other way… Maybe I will do my next project purely conceptual/art instead of documentary, because my interests lie there also… maybe I do this because I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, even by myself… my main goal is to learn, grow, travel, meet cultures and sub-cultures and keep an open mind, and of course spend as much time with my brother as I can!!

Souichirou shows his Koi tattoo - 2009

Souichirou shows his Koi tattoo – 2009