Few organizations are more feared and surrounded by myth than the yakuza. It has a strong influence also outside Japan, both in real life and in popular culture.
Few outsiders have been allowed inside the organization or to speak to its members. Andreas Johansson was able to interview and photograph several yakuza and their rich tattoos in the middle of an on-going gang war. Yakuza Tattoo offers a unique insight into the world of yakuza tattoos and symbols.
“Watching movies about the Yakuza before meeting them is nothing I recommend. Before I left I was worried that I would be threatened, shot, stabbed, beaten up, blackmailed, a witness to crimes or arrested; the list is long when you are working with a project like this one. There was an ongoing war between the clan I describe in my book and a rivalling family during the weeks I spent with the Yakuza; it was a dangerous situation, but I knew that despite the movies, the yakuza are not known for their wild shooting sprees," says Johansson.
He met them in Yokohama nightclubs, bars, back alleys and in their homes. Yakuza Tattoo offers a unique insight into the dragons, carp and gods that are associated with yakuza identity.
“There seems to be a stereotypical image of yakuza symbols and tattoos. In my book, I show there is great variation," says Johansson.
Johansson has a PhD in history of religions and works at Lund University and the Linnaeus University. He has a special interest in the religions of Asia, and he has done field work in South Asia. His research focuses on religious symbols and terminology among non-religious organisations.
The motifs are inspired by the structure of the organization, Japanese history and mythology, but younger members today choose to add modern elements. Tattoos are still not socially acceptable in Japan, however.
“Getting an irezumi is to dirty your body, the body that your parents gave you. But doing it as a yakuza is saying that you are never going to return to a normal life.”
Yakuza Tattoo (softcover) will be published by Dokument Press.
Mrparka’s Weekly Reviews Episode 120 (Audio Version)