For the Yakuza, “Sorry” Doesn’t Cut It

09.06.12 John Marshall Katheder

You’d think that several flowers would make a better apology than severed fingers. But, as Belgian photographer Anton Kusters found out, the yakuza gangsters of Japan prefer something called Yubitsume for atonement. Yubitsume literally translates to “finger shortening,” which is a pretty effective euphemism for slicing off part of your pinky and offering it humbly to whomever you’ve offended.

“If you do something wrong,” his contact within the yakuza organization told him, “you will have to apologize.” It was 3:30 AM and Kusters was cruising north from Tokyo to the Niigata Prison with some brutal-looking members of traditional Japanese organized crime. He retold this story during a TED talk earlier this year.

Steward Magazine recently published an interview with Kusters, after he and his brother spent four years photographing the secretive yet notorious Yakuza; the Kusters brothers were the first westerners to ever have such access. While Anton, the seasoned photographer, was initially worried about how to get the shot without getting shot, he found shady business dealings of the yakuza to be less than rambunctious.

“Coming in, I thought I would be dealing with thugs,” he told Steward. “While I was shielded from the violence, these yakuza still seem more like economic criminals.”

Through several mediums including film and graphic design, the bold pair sought to capture the nuanced relationship of this gang within the Japanese culture at large.