These Photos Capture Former Yakuza Gangsters at a Japanese Bathhouse

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893 Yakuza: The Setting Sun
Photography by Theo Cottle

Theo Cottle’s arresting new photo series captures the vulnerable masculinity of former gangsters at an onsen. “It’s really hard for them to be part of society,” he says

When Theo Cottle flew to Japan for a commercial project late last year, he didn’t expect to find inspiration at a bathhouse in the red light district. Sitting by himself at an onsen, the London-based photographer spotted an older gentleman walking around the room, covered in distinctive Yakuza tattoos that singled him out from the rest. “He wasn’t trying to get attention,” Cottle says. “He was just walking around the area. His whole back was a Yakuza tattoo. He had this sort of presence walking around. I was so fascinated.” Drawn to the striking presence of a Yakuza member in the middle of an onsen, and his distinguishing tattoo, Cottle approached the man. “That was the catalyst of wanting to explore that,” Cottle says, explaining how his self-published photo essay came to be.

893 Yakuza: The Setting Sun is an arresting collection of photographs featuring older Yakuza members at a traditional Japanese onsen. Men sit in baths alongside pages of symbolic imagery: weathered hands with fingers missing, bejewelled teeth underneath lips raised in a snarl, a samurai sword. Cottle’s photos of elaborate tattoos on wrinkled skin call to mind a dragon’s scales, and reptiles feature heavily throughout the book. Under bold blue, red, and green lighting, a variety of lizards, snakes, and other amphibians crawl within 893’s pages. The idea behind including reptiles in the photo series was to parallel the idea that modern-day Yakuza members have a difficult time being integrated into society, keeping them in an invisible cage of sorts. “I wanted to bring up this sort of parallel [with the reptiles] where they’re kind of in a cage, within their society,” Cottle says. “You know, in [their] culture, they can’t get phones, bank accounts, mortgages. It’s all really hard for them to be part of society. And also, the general public fear them. They’re very isolated, like the reptile. It just felt like the imagery fitted in.” 

The comparison to reptiles creates a beautiful metaphor for what these men represent in Japanese society. Cottle explains that within modern-day Japanese culture, Yakuza can be viewed as beasts of society, and so it felt fitting to depict them alongside amphibious beasts. In many ways, older Yakuza members are chained to their own pasts. “They’ve got all these tattoos from when they were younger, with their fingers missing. And obviously, when you get older things start to change a little bit, but you’re burdened with this sort of visual. It’s like an advert of your past.”

There is a vulnerability to allowing oneself to be exposed at an onsen, body on full display. One black-and-white photo features a man covered in tattoos, wearing nothing but a wristwatch, dousing himself in water from a plastic tub. The image is a stark representation of vulnerability and masculinity, 893 Yakuza’s strongest themes. “Real masculinity is to basically not give a shit about anything,” Cottle says. “And [during the shoot], they were so comfortable in their own skin. I don’t think you have that sort of thing in Western culture. There’s an aspect to nudity that we have a different view on. There’s a confidence there that I don’t think we really see that often – being able to be vulnerable is quite a strong thing.” The entire creative process behind the shoot was imbued with this powerful sense of vulnerability.

“When you look in people’s eyes, I feel like you can see a glimpse of what the past entails. You could definitely feel these guys had a lot of history personally,” Cottle says, while relaying how the shoot challenged his own preconceptions of what it might be like to meet a gang member in person. “They were some of the most respectful people I’ve ever shot, like really, really polite.” Flip open 893 Yakuza to the middle and you’ll find a closeup of an eye drowned in red light, skin wet with bathwater. “I guess the people that are in [the Yakuza] are in the last phase of it. The glory years are kind of going … There’s a lot of tradition that’s being lost.” In the eyes of these men are potent glimpses of the past, untranslatable to words – something, perhaps, only photographs can capture.

893 Yakuza: The Setting Sun by Theo Cottle is self-published, and is out now.