Dazed Digital

Tokyo / 日本語

Anton Kusters Meets the Yakuza

October 4, 2011

We speak with the photographer who has spent the past two years documenting a Tokyo yakuza gang

  • Text by Sophie Jackson

A little while back we highlighted the project being completed by the photographer Anton Kusters and have subsequently had a chance to speak with the man himself.

To recap, two-years-ago Kusters managed to gain access to a Kabukicho-based branch of the yakuza and has spent some time since then documenting their various activities in some startling images. The results are ongoing with photographs and a book having been released and further plans for an exhibition and a documentary film.

Satellite Voices was lucky enough to be able to put some questions to Anton.

Satellite Voices: What made you decide to start this project?
Anton Kusters: 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, he is a marketing expert), and then this guy walked in.

SV: Could you explain which part of the yakuza you were working with, their name and where they are based?
Anton Kusters:
 I was following the family that controls Kabukicho in Tokyo. Kabukicho is the oldest red light district in Tokyo, in the absolute center. I followed mainly the bosses but also the mid level and the young recruits. I cannot say the name of the family for safety concerns. Their family has about 1,200 members (the yakuza in total in Japan has around 86,000 members).

SV: 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 a difficult process?
Anton Kusters: It was extremely hard work to get them to agree. It took my brother and I about 10 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.

SV: 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?
Anton Kusters: I photographed for two years. It was not continuous, 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, to witness.

SV: Are there any incidents or anecdotes from your time amongst the yakuza that particularly stand out in your memory?
Anton Kusters:
 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 died 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.

SV: Is the project now totally completed in which case would you consider documenting the yakuza again in some way?
Anton Kusters: 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.

SV: 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?
Anton Kusters: 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.

SV: Did you learn anything about life or yourself through your project? It must have felt quite intimidating or dangerous at times?
Anton Kusters: 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.

SV: Have you made any lasting, personal relationships with any of the subjects involved in the project?
Anton Kusters: 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.

SV: What are your next projects? Will it be a clean break from this work or a continuation?
Anton Kusters:
 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!

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