At a pub in Yokohama, history of religions scholar Andreas Johansson by chance came in contact with the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza. For two weeks, he was hanging out with the mafia, and will soon publish a book on the tattoos of the Yakuza and what they symbolise.
In the autumn of 2014, Andreas Johansson participated in a conference in Yokohama, Japan. In the evening, he took a walk around town and ended up in a pub where started talking to a Japanese man. Andreas spoke about his interest in religious symbols that are used in non-religious contexts. The man then told him that he knew people who were part of the Yakuza – the dreaded mafia – and that symbols are important for its members who tattoo images with different meanings on the body. Andreas became curious and blurted out that it would be fun to interview someone about this. “Come back Friday and you’ll get to meet one of the bosses”, said the man.
“I could hardly believe it. But I went back – and did in fact meet the mob boss”, says Andreas Johansson to LUM.
They made good contact and after their conversation they began corresponding via email. One year later, Andreas Johansson returned to Yokohama, invited to conducts interviews and document the tattoos through photographs.
“I hung out with the Yakuza for two weeks”, he explains.
The Yakuza are involved in organised crime but unlike, for instance, the Italian mafia, their activities are not kept secret. Some of their activities are legal, and they have offices completely out in the open. Its members are public figures, and present on a resource similar to Wikipedia.
“The Yakuza is hierarchically structured and composed of several ‘bosses’, each of whom has eight people working under them. They are required to register with the police every year. It is a strange system – they are public and secretive at the same time. It’s a form of brotherhood”, summarises Andreas Johansson.
The Yakuza are involved in drugs and gambling, trafficking, extortion and racketeering. But at the same time they see themselves as friends of the people – a bit like Robin Hood – and draw inspiration from the stories of various Samurai heroes.
“A few years ago, when the major tsunami hit Japan, members of the Yakuza were the first ones on the scene to help the victims. And when they go out to eat, they often go to local taverns rather than luxury restaurants.”
“‘Yakuza’ is an umbrella term for the many clans of the mafia, which occasionally are also in conflict with each other”, says Andreas. The clan he followed is the largest and has been around for over a hundred years: The Yamaguchi-gumi.
“There was a war going on between them and another clan when I was there, although I didn’t notice it.”
This is usually the case for Japanese citizens – the confrontations take place within the clans and deadly violence is rare in society as a whole.
In the short time Andreas Johansson spent in Yokohama he managed to meet not only the boss’s subordinates but also his family members.
“It was a bit stiff at first but then we became good friends. It might sound provocative, but it was a very nice visit. They are criminals, but also human.”
The boss is a sort of father figure, and when they get together the ‘father’ can distribute food to his ‘children’.
“I was treated like a member of the Yakuza family and I too was given food directly from the boss on these occasions.”
Andreas Johansson also asked critical questions, but the focus was on the tattoos and their spiritual significance, the interviews and the photo documentation.
“My camera was very important – it was my access card.”
Both before and after, he has thought about what he got himself into. What risks did he actually take? Could it really be this easy to get close to the Yakuza?
“I think that I simply met the right person – someone who was open, who understood and shared my interest in these symbols.”
Text: Britta Collberg
About the tattoos
It requires over 200 hours of painful pricks by hand, with a metal pin attached to a bamboo stick, to achieve the tattoos that are common within the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza. The images can cover large areas of the body, and even genitalia.
Andreas Johansson’s photo documentation of tattoos in the Yamaguchi-gumi clan shows that the symbols worn by the members can have a very different, and often, spiritual meaning, more closely related to superstition than religion in the modern sense of the word.
“Even if a person carries a picture of a very famous Shinto-Buddhist God, they often have a personal interpretation and relationship to that God.”
Tattooed images of Samurai heroes are common – according to one of the legends, the Yakuza have their roots in the Samurai. Images of koi fish (a form of carp) symbolise a desire to move up and become the most powerful of all the mythical creatures: the dragon, which is another common symbol.
“The stories of the individual mafia members are also reflected in the images, created in collaboration with the person who is being tattooed. That was the case with a man I met who used to be poor. He had a frog tattooed on his arm. It symbolised that he would never be poor again; if he spent 50 coins, he would get them back…. The frog was like a spell and an insurance policy.”
But the Yakuza is also affected by globalisation. Although the traditional Japanese gods are holding the fort, younger mafia members are increasingly mixing them with images of American gang culture such as guns and expressions like ‘bad boy’.
Text: Britta Collberg
Footnote: Andreas Johansson’s photo book “Yakuza Tattoo” will be released in April by the Dokument Press publishing house.
Facts: The Yakuza
- The Japanese mafia, known as the Yakuza, has an estimated 60 000 members, but is decreasing due to stricter judicial control.
- The Yakuza consists of different clans, which are sometimes in conflict with each other. Each clan is divided into subgroups led by bosses.
- After the banning of tattoos in Japan in the late 1800s, they came to be strongly associated with the Yakuza. Even today – half a century after tattoos became legal again – many bath houses, among other places, will not let you in if you have a tattoo.