New blog, Yakuza and Sanja Matsuri

It has been exactly four years since I first had the opportunity to shoot a Japanese person completely covered in traditional ink. An elderly gentleman of well above 60 years, Mr. Ogura dedicated a fair share of his time, money and physical ability to withstand pain to the art of tattooing. Only much later would I learn, that this threefold way of endurance (gaman) is one of the core concepts of Japanese tattoos.

“My bad, it seems I forgot my fundôshi”, Mr. Ogura told me and apologetically pointed at his crotch. Because his wife immediately started scolding him, I understood he apparently didn’t bring the traditional underwear Japanese men tend to use for events such as festivals or photo shootings like this. I started showing interest in photography only a few months earlier and now I suddenly found myself trembling and sweating at this sight of an angry Japanese wife and her husband who was covered in a patina of aged traditional ink.

Well, I ended up doing my first nude session ever with elderly Mr. Ogura.  

Fast-forward four years: I recently finished my B.A. with a thesis about the current debate about the prosecution of commercial tattooing in Japan. After reading so many books and having had dozens of opportunities to talk to experts of Japanese tattooing, my view on irezumi dramatically changed. For most people however, the first thing that comes to mind when seeing an exceptionally beautifully inked traditional piece, still is the world of organized crime – the world of the Yakuza. 

Occasionally people ask me what it is like to talk to all these people involved in the underworld and I have to disappoint them: irezumi or shisei and horimono are a tradition that originates in the world of the craftsmen of the 18th and early 19th century – the Yakuza adopted it much later. (Edit: For more on this topic, you might want to read a short article I wrote for the German news website Spiegel Online.)

These questions however made me reflect about my own few encounters with Japanese Yakuza, starting with Mr. Ogura – who may or may not have been a part of a group in his past. The affiliation to a syndicate however, is indisputable for some of the people on the following pictures, which I took on the popular Sanja Matsuri in May 2017. 

This group, called the Takahashi-gumi, is notoriously famous for their guest appearance at the Sanja matsuri, one of Tokyo’s three big Shinto festivals. Enjoy the first round of pictures and stay tuned for similar stories – maybe that one about the guy from Kokubunji with his two crutches, who introduced himself as “Shadow” and wanted me to exchange one of my silver rings for a photo of his tattoos…

Using Format