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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!