In 2003, now Tokyo-based portrait photographer Christopher Jue watched The Last Samurai in theaters. The film sparked his curiosity for Japan, and he soon took a trip to the East Asian island nation to do a bit of exploring. There, instead of samurais and ninjas, he found large crowds and copious neon lighting; he was hooked. Several Japanese vacations later, Christopher found a job that would sponsor his work visa and he officially moved to Tokyo in 2005. Just three years later, he made the switch to full-time professional photographer, and has been shooting in and around Japan ever since.
Over the last three years, Christopher has had his fair share of interesting, and even wild assignments, but nothing compares to his most recent shoot for The Times of London: an afternoon with the Yakuza.
The Times’s Tokyo bureau had been covering a story on the increased crime in the community of Kitakyushu, including arson, threats and even people being slashed in the face with machetes. They called upon Christoper to illustrate the story for them by documenting a day in the life of the local Yakuza group, the Kudo-kai.
Headquartered in Fukuoka, the Kudo-kai has an estimated 630 members, making it the largest Yakuza group in the Kitakyushu area. Despite its reputation, and the fact that he had no idea what to expect, Christopher took on the assignment with zero trepidation or unease, saying he was “ready to go.”
However, when he arrived for the shoot, he was a bit surprised. Unlike what some may expect, a meeting in a coffee shop, dark alley or club, Christopher was driven to the Kudo-kai’s four story headquarters where he was greeted by two rows of suited members.
I think that it may be only in Japan where these types of groups have legitimate offices and business cards to hand out. They offered a warm welcoming to the Kudokai fortress, consisting of high walls, barbed wire and security cameras all around. I doubt that it’s open to the general public. I kind of felt like a president for a minute as we made our way in, the guys to the left and right all bowed to show a sign of respect.
Focused on the task at hand, Christopher found himself calm as he walked into the building, although he did have a quick flash of the thought, “once I step foot into their property, anything can happen.” Once inside, he was shown to a “VIP meeting” room. He made sure to ask before taking any pictures, not wanting to upset anyone. “Delicious treats” including cake and coffee were served and Christopher says he and the rest of The Times staff were treated very well.
After several hours of chatting with members and photographing the Kudo-kai, Christopher and the team packed up and were shuttled off in the group’s black cars. The Kudo-kai insisted that Christopher take a separate car from the rest of the group, for reasons he still doesn’t understand, but said that “The Times staffers were joking that they were going to kidnap me and have me work as the organization’s staff photographer.”
Luckily, that didn’t happen and Christopher made it out safely with some pretty interesting stories and photographs, the latter of which were used in The Times of London’s article: Japanese Gangs Turn on the Public in Violent Clash with Police.