Published November 11, 2015
It’s probably not surprising that the Yakuza aren’t super open to strangers. Especially foreign strangers with a camera. Despite this, Sydney photographer Jesse Lizotte convinced the infamous Japanese gang to be the subject of his most recent series Born Too Late.
Jesse has some experience convincing people to do things they usually wouldn’t. Previously he’d detailed the lives of lowrider gangs in Chicago and Los Angeles. But even for him, convincing the members to be subjects and let him photograph their missing fingers and tattoos of the people they killed was an intimidating project.
Ahead of his IPF show in Melbourne, VICE spoke to him about they ways the two gangs influenced each other from afar, and how Yakuza culture is changing with a new generation.
VICE: Hey Jesse, with Born Too Late you took on some pretty intense subjects. Tell me about hanging out with the Japanese underworld.
Jesse Lizotte: To be honest, they weren’t the easiest group of people I’ve ever photographed as a foreigner. And they’re the type of people who don’t like to have their photo taken. It’s a completely different mentality. They struggle to get their head around the idea that it’s cool to show off your tattoos and be a gangster. The Yakuza are real straight forward though—the way they carry themselves shows they don’t give a fuck. They’ve been through a lot and been shunned by society. Their demeanour is not what you’d expect from a Japanese person.
Did you feel unsafe at any point?
Yes, definitely. There was one time my translator took me to photograph this guy and he was not happy that I was there. I stood around for about an hour in silence until he told me he was ready. He got completely nude and he was covered in tattoos. He had like, four missing fingers. He had a problem with me photographing his face and I wasn’t going to argue with that. On his chest, he had his clan’s symbol which I wasn’t supposed to shoot so he covered that up and on his stomach he had the names of some people he’d killed. We had to go through every frame on my camera. I only ended up with two photos—one of his back and one of his front.
How did Born Too Late follow on from your last project Lowrider?
I never really planned on getting myself into this shit. I’m not out to shoot criminal tough guys, it just happened naturally. Born Too Late started when I was at one of the guy’s houses in LA and he had this wall where he kept photos of dudes in jail. In the middle was a photo of this Japanese guy, and he just stuck out. I got his email and contacted him, and eventually he replied with one line saying, “Here’s my number. Call me when you get to Tokyo”. That was it.
After working with these groups, did you notice many Western influences on the Japanese underworld?
Definitely. You’d see the younger guys being showboats on the Tokyo streets in Nike. They’re driving Lamborghinis, blatantly saying, “Look at me, I’m a Yakuza”. The older guys are a lot more subtle.
Are there noticeable generational differences in the Yakuza?
The new generation look a lot different, you can see that real western influence. They listen to western music and drive western cars. I guess they identify more with that image of the audacious gangster. The older guys are still really traditional. I was talking to someone about the ritual of when you fuck up, you cut off one of your fingers. That’s been lost now. It’s like, if you fuck up you just pay an exorbitant amount of money.
There’s still a lot of hierarchy —the younger guys respect the older guys a lot. The young guys bring the food out and don’t eat until the other guys say it’s ok. They also open doors, and pour them sake.
When you shoot people like this, who are so glorified but are responsible for so much violence, do you try to imbue the series with a message? Or are you just a documentarian?
I felt it was important to shoot these characters because they’re a dying breed. I just didn’t want to sensationalise any of it. I didn’t even want to use the word Yakuza, people know about it all already, I wanted it to be more than that.
Born Too Late opens 13 November at the RVCA Corner Gallery