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Inside the family

Recruits have a moment of meditation on the beach at 5am, led by master samurai swordsman Nakata Sensei

A Yakuza street fighter showing off his tattoo in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo.

“The project started out as a personal thing: my brother lives in Japan and I was looking for a way to visit him more often. Having a project in Japan would do the trick. One night we were in Tokyo having a beer and talking about this, when a member of the Yakuza walked into the bar. After he left, the bartender Taka-san explained who he was and that’s when my brother and I decided to go for it. Taka-san warned us that we should take things extremely seriously and take time to negotiate with them, which we did. We ended up negotiating for ten months, after which I was allowed access to photograph for two years. I think the reason I got so much freedom was that we hung in there to gain trust for the better part of a year.”

A senior member of the Odo clan shows his hand, with its missing fingers. To lend weight to his apology for a wrongdoing, a member of the Yakuza will sever a digit from his own hand with a knife and give it to the wronged party

“I was following an organised crime syndicate, so of course there was criminal activity. The Yakuza knows that I abhor violence in any form, but this personal opinion is not relevant to my work documenting them. My job was to present what I saw without judgment or opinion. I set out to try and understand what it feels like to be a Yakuza. I watched the extremely subtle social interactions: the micro-expressions on the faces, the gestures, the voices and intonations, the body language, the absolute respect. Everything appeared to be strictly organised, yet at the same time completely natural: for some reason I didn’t need anyone to tell me what to do, where to sit, when to talk or when to shut up. It’s like I could feel the boundaries and the implicit expectations.”

“This is the contract. The agreement was that I could photograph them for two years exactly”

“These are the three highest-ranking bosses of the family – with the godfather in the centre – during a traditional dinner at a restaurant in Kabukicho, Tokyo”

Yakuza members at a striptease bar controlled by the family in Kabukicho

“In the beginning I was nervous of course, but my contact took me aside quickly and told me it would be considered disrespectful to be scared; after all, the godfather himself had guaranteed my safety and allowed me to photograph. If I were to show fear while being around them that would signify that I did not trust his word that I would be safe.”

A prostitute connected to the Yakuza shows a tattoo on her leg

“The Yakuza very much try to be part of mainstream society, which is why they dress as respectable businessmen – they attempt to spread an image of decency and conformity. They do not try to hide or shy away from the public, and even have official ‘offices’ in the streets. My contact within the Yakuza was Souichirou – he is a mid-level ranking boss in the family I photographed and guided me during my time. His office is in the middle of Kabukicho, the infamous red light district in the centre of Tokyo – an area his family controls. On his screens he monitors the streets below, cameras everywhere, ready to send his lieutenants to intervene if necessary. Every time the family walks the streets of Kabukicho everything seems extremely friendly and conversational, yet at the same time you can feel the impact on the street life. Greeting and being greeted by the people, the undertone, the message of the family remains unmistakably clear: these are our streets”.

Souichirou’s office in the middle of Kabukicho, Tokyo, from which he controls the neighbourhood

Yakuza pose in the streets of Kabukicho, the red light district in the heart of Shinjuku, Tokyo

“The Yakuza combine their sharp suits with traditional Japanese tattoos. The skill set involved is immense: at precisely 120 stabs a minute with handmade needles, and at an exact angle and depth, the tattoo slowly grows. The result is an intricate colour palette and pattern that is not possible with the modern way of tattooing with a machine. Any mistake will show up immediately, and permanently, as an imperfection.  I shot master tattooist Hori Sensei. He has to invite you to be tattooed, he does not accept regular clients. With him, completing a traditional Japanese tattoo takes about 100 hours and can cost up to $10,000. As a client, you have only a little say in the design of the tattoo. Hori Sensei determines what is best for you.”

Yamamoto Kaicho, the number two boss, lies still as tattooist Hori Sensei completes his full body tattoo

Souichirou shows his Koi tattoo

“I accompanied the clan to a covert training camp in Minamiboso. Young Yakuza recruits lined up every morning on the beach to meditate before they started their daily training routine of close combat fighting, bodyguard training and knife practice. The bosses were talking and playing baseball. It seems the Yakuza offer these young recruits – often called the ‘lost youth’ in Japan – a new family of sorts. A sense of belonging.”

Yakuza play baseball on the beach at a training camp in Minamiboso

Recruits have a moment of meditation on the beach at 5am, led by master samurai swordsman Nakata Sensei

“I was invited to shoot the funeral of Miyamoto-san, a high-ranking boss, but him being part of a Yakuza family wasn’t relevant now. All I could see before me was a man. The funeral felt very human and extremely intimate, something I did not expect. It was a Buddhist funeral in which the body is cremated but the shattered bones are saved and every attending member of the family gets to pick a bone and put it inside an urn. The day of the funeral stands for me as the moment I got the deepest I could inside the family and it showed I had gained their trust. I was grateful to have been allowed to be there.”

More than 250 family members line up during the funeral service for Miyamoto-san

“I used to think the Yakuza were crazy tattooed gangsters running around with swords in the street, but this is not what I experienced. My time with them didn’t change my perception about their criminal activities, but I did feel that everything seemed much more subdued and subtle than I had thought. Recent legislation enables Japanese law enforcement to pursue and crack down on Yakuza more than was possible in the past. Despite this, it seems that the worst that could happen is not to lose their power or be incarcerated, but for Japanese society to lose respect for them.”

Top: Members paying their respects at the makeshift altar during the traditional funeral for Miyamoto-san (above)

Destined-to-be-godfather boss Hasebe-san during the funeral of Miyamoto-san


You can see more of Anton Kusters’ work at antonkusters.com. A new edition of ‘Odo Yakuza Tokyo’ – his book charting his time with the Yakuza – will be published in October. 

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