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Visiting the boundaries of a hidden Tokyo.

interview: Daniel Perlaky
images: Anton Kusters

Belgian photographer Anton Kusters spent two years absorbing the lives of Yakuza members – being an open canvas and present in everything they do – seeing all the shades of grey.

This is decidedly not a photojournalistic project but rather the sort of absorbing art documentary that showed Kusters more of himself than it did of his subjects and set the first tones for a talented and insightful voice in photography.

What drew you into this project?

I wanted to do a project with my brother Malik, who has been living in Tokyo for a decade. We were having a beer one night and a Yakuza boss walked in the bar and had a short conversation with our friend Taka-san, the bar owner, which piqued our interest to know more about this hidden world.

How did you create the relationships to get you such access? What were the logistics like to enter such a closed world?

Taka-san became our fixer, and introduced us to Soichiro, a Yakuza boss of the family that controls Kabukicho in Shinjuku, Tokyo. We negotiated heavily for ten months, trying to make clear that I was trying to create an art project and learn about Japanese culture and Yakuza subculture, and that my intentions were not journalistic in any way. Japanese culture is one of subtleties, and this was no different. It was important for us to stress how I felt about the project: that I wanted to learn about them, as opposed to "taking pictures of them".

Anton Kusters self-portrait

While Yakuza do not ever openly praise, I have been assured in private by the godfather that they highly regard the work

Were you able to participate in the culture and lifestyle or how much were you kept out as a foreigner? Did you feel unsafe?

Once permission given, they would regard it as a personal failure if they would not be able to guarantee my safety for something they agree to. Soichiro personally took it upon himself to teach me as much as possible how to be polite, how to understand and respect the culture and social interactions. This took several months, and of course, as a foreigner, there is no way I could ever understand or master it all.

Describe the process of photographing this project. How did these shots come about?

It was a "picture by appointment" type of project, where my brother and Soichiro would discuss the family's schedule (in as much detail as was possible without being a safety risk), and organize my stays according to that. I would spend anywhere between a week to two months with them, then a break of a few weeks, and then the process started again. This going on for exactly two years, which was the agreement we had with them. There are no posed or set up shots whatsoever. It is always me being present in everything that they do.

Did you have preconceived ideas of what you wanted to capture?

I had the vague idea of wanting to capture the atmosphere and what I felt like being with them. In a sense this is a very personal project, as it is the visualisation of my feelings at all those specific moments with the Yakuza. My canvas was completely open, not knowing where things would take me along the way.

What were some of the most interesting moments?

I started to realize that "being Yakuza" was something much more subtle and deep than I had thought before. Although criminal, they do see themselves as keepers of certain Japanese traditional values, and their actions are based upon them. I learned that it is not a world of simple black versus white, good versus bad, but a world with many shades of grey.

There are some emotional images in the series… how did this project personally touch you?

From the outside, one easily dismisses because of the criminal aspect of what they are. From the inside, though still criminal, the story is much more nuanced. For example, on Miyamoto-san's death bed, I would visit him and pay my respects and see him as a human being lying before me, dying. At moments like that, it is not relevant to me how "good" or how "bad" I or society judges the man to be. It is not up to me to judge him. I see someone dying, and I feel that pain.

How did you select your shots and angles? Did you attempt to hide the camera and capture candid shots?

No, I definitely did not hide the camera. That would imply to them that I would be doing something hidden while having permission to photograph, which would shatter all trust that I had built up. All shots are with everyone fully aware of things happening, and are also shown and discussed after.

Did the Yakuza respect your work?

I have presented the book to them as a gift and thank you for letting me photograph them for so long. While Yakuza do not ever openly praise, I have been assured in private by the godfather that they highly regard the work, and even though unorthodox (as I have western "eyes"), they completely respected the artistic statement I had made.

Has this project opened new doors for you?

Yakuza is my first project as a photographer. I am extremely happy with the incredible press attention that I get, the books that I sell, and the exhibitions that are coming up. It has put me in a position where I can now choose to "go for it" as a photographer and start several more projects, look into collaborations, etc.

What do you have on the horizon for current or future projects?

I have started a polaroid project called "Heavens" which is a conceptual art project about the horrors of the Holocaust. Alongside, I have my personal long-term story "Dislocate" for which I am editing a first chapter. And finally, I'm also deeply collaborating with a close friend and fellow artist on designing two books for his art project called "A Little Glow in the Dark". On my website, I try to talk as much as possible on the progress of all of these projects, my fears and little victories along the way, as well as my hopes and aspirations.

What's a question you wish people asked you about this project?

People usually can't seem to look past the Yakuza element in the story, which is only the top layer. While it's of course the main subject, people don't realize this is NOT a journalistic project in which "a photographer shows how it really is inside the Yakuza". On the contrary, this is a documentary art project, in which, through images of a Yakuza family, I show my own fears and hopes...

But this is not a complaint at all... "Yakuza" is my "debut album" so to speak, and I couldn't wish for a better one.... and of course I know and accept that "Yakuza" is a subject so strong and dominating that my personal voice gets lost inside. That voice also needs, take time to grow and mature. My next projects will try to focus more on the right balance between what you see and what it means...

Anton Kusters Yakuza book + Anton Kusters website
+ Buy Odo Yakuza Tokyo book