In a display of power and strength, the yakuza showed off their full-body tattoos and carried a one tonne shrine through the streets
“Sumimasen (excuse me)” I say for the 100th time as I squeeze my way through a sea of booze, tattoos and middle-aged men. I’m at Sanja Matsuri, Tokyo’s largest and wildest traditional festival held in honour of those who founded the city’s oldest temple. The crowds are insane, with close to two million people visiting the neighbourhood over the course of the three days.
It’s no secret that many of Tokyo's festivals are controlled by organised crime syndicates, known as yakuza. Usually, their involvement is pretty covert, and with their tattoos covered up you’d actually be hard-pressed to spot them. Once a year, however, the yakuza openly do a rare show of strength at the Sanja Matsuri – disrobing to show their full-body tattoos and taking part in the festival processions. This show of strength is not only symbolic in nature – it’s also literal. One hundred men join forces to lift a mikoshi (portable shrine) that weighs over one tonne and parade it through the streets.
Walking down a series of backstreets not far from Iriya station I spot some activity at the end of an alleyway. A group of men in festival garb are sitting under a makeshift marquis, surrounded by a huge pile of booze. I take out my camera to take a picture, and when I do a guy calls me over and hands me a beer. “Kampai (cheers)” he laughs. Like all Japanese festivals, the atmosphere is good – but I’m also well aware of the older guys in suits and shades lingering about. I'm careful to show respect and keep out of their way.
At one point I’m invited to sit with a family who are also drinking. The mother asks me where I’m from. “I'm British,” I say. “Ahhh, British. Your accent sounds so much nicer than the Americans.” As she is talking the guy beside me fully strips off down to his fundoshi, the traditional Japanese undergarment for adult males, made from a length of cotton. It’s the first time I’ve seen a full-body yakuza tattoo this close. He walks over to a the wall of a building where a guy is waiting with an old-school glass plate camera. He, along with others, poses for photographs while we continue to drink and eat yakisoba (fried noodles).
When it’s time for the procession to begin, the yakuza members finish up their drinks and gather outside the koban (police station) where they disrobe to show off their tattoos. The police look on but aren’t bothered. I guess the yakuza choosing to start the procession outside the police station can be seen as symbolic – a show of strength that says they rule the neighbourhood. It could also be interpreted as a sign of unity between the two, in that most neighbourhoods live in peace despite yakuza involvement.
Many people aren’t aware that following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami the yakuza sent hundreds of trucks filled with food, water, blankets, and sanitary accessories to aid the people in the affected areas of the natural disaster. The yakuza’s code of honour – ninkyo – reportedly values justice and duty above anything else, and forbids allowing others to suffer.
After disrobing, the yakuza members stand on top of the shrine so everyone can see them, and just before it is lifted they jump off (it's seen as an act of sacrilege to ride on top of one.) The familiar sound of chanting fills the air as the shrine is heaved through the streets. It's a powerful sight – exactly what the yakuza intended.