Like you, all my understanding of the mafia comes from what I see in movies. And while I know The Godfather can seduce with all that suiting and moral sweep, it’s basically costume drama for dudes. Most modern portrayals of organized crime have presented mobsters as a group of horribly dressed sociopaths, and rightfully so. I’ve never expected those concerned with the moral life to make a career of creatively goring people with ice picks. But photographer Anton Kusters says that, where the yakuza are concerned, some of those creaky tropes about loyalty and honor are true. Having spent two years documenting the life of a Tokyo yakuza gang, he was given unprecedented access to a criminal underworld steeped in ritual, nuance, and exploitation.
How did this project begin? Had you always been interested in the yakuza?
Actually it began with me trying to find a way to spend more time with my brother, who lives in Tokyo working in marketing. We were out having a beer one night with some friends, discussing how to do this, when suddenly this Yakuza came in. He was very sharply dressed, in a tailored suit, and had this presence about him. He greeted everyone, spoke to the bar’s owner, Taka-san, and left. So it just seemed like a cool idea. My brother knew Taka-san well enough to ask him to be our fixer with the gang.
Was it easy getting their permission?
After Taka-san introduced me, he told me I was on my own. So I had to really fend for myself trying to convince the gang to let me photograph them. It took a little while. At first they thought I might be doing this for a paper, so I had told them it was not journalistically inspired, but an art project that would lead to a book and an exhibition. They quite liked the idea of an art project. They view what they do as part of a way of life rather than the sum of their actions, and liked talking about the subculture—it’s values and everything. They turned out to be very encouraging. They enjoyed the attention.
What was it like in the beginning?
I was extremely nervous. Since they are gangsters, I thought I should be very careful, in case I shot something I wasn’t supposed to see. But this actually upset the gang. They saw my nervousness as disrespectful. I remember one time early on this guy pulled me aside and said, “You are here to take pictures. Act like a professional.” It turned out they respected me if I was really aggressive about getting a certain shot. To not take photos was a sign of weakness.
So what was that subculture like? What kind of values did they have?
The values were almost comparable to general Japanese workplace values, actually. Most yakuza gangs actually have neighborhood offices, and the plaques they have on the door state core values like “respect your superiors,” “keep the office clean,” and so on. One thing I noticed early on with gang life was how subtle everything was. Everything was unspoken, and will was expressed through group pressure. A pressure was constantly there. There was this innate understanding of form—if someone did something wrong, no one would say anything; he would simply be expected to apologize. And the fact everyone would be so silent about it made the pressure really intense.
If a member was made to apologize, would he have to cut off a piece of his finger or anything?
No. There were of course men who had had yubitsume [an atonement ritual where offenders are forced to sever a piece of their fingers], and it would still happen, but only every few years or so. The gang really went out of their way to minimize violence. Part of what I noticed about the Yakuza was that they felt as if they were almost “part” of society, like society wasn’t society without a criminal element, but this also made them very conscious of their role within society. Like I said, they have a pretty visible profile in Japan, so all the bosses are very careful not to stand out or draw attention. This also obviously makes them much harder to prosecute. If someone made a transgression, the most common punishment was demotion. And it was taken seriously. If someone was demoted it was really seen as shameful since the yakuza are so hierarchical. They could leverage social form that way.