In April 1996, I went to Tokyo to undertake a series of conferences and to take part in an exhibition of my photographs at the Nikon gallery.
I had also hoped that during my stay I would be able to photograph geishas, some stars of sumo and some Japanese models. Although above all, I was really hoping to meet and photograph some tattooed women. I had been deeply affected by the film ‘The Tattooed Woman’ by Yoichi Takabayashi. Once I had arrived my Japanese editors did everything they could do dissuade me: the most part of these women are involved in prostitution and getting involved would be quite dangerous. However one evening I received a telephone call from one of my editors announcing that whilst he could not get me tattooed women he could arrange some tattooed men!
After a moments hesitation I accepted.
Things developed in a way that I could not control. A meeting with the men in question would take place the following morning. That is all that I knew, a driver would arrive at our hotel and take us into the country, that is all I, my agent, my editor and another contact of mine knew. We had no idea of exactly where we were going.
At 09:30 in the morning to be exact, a huge limousine driven by someone who looked like they had just walked out of comic strip rolled up silently and parked in front of the entrance lobby of our hotel. A middle-aged man, dressed in an usual fashion, got out the car and walked towards us. He was no ordinary Japanese man, but I did not realize this straight away. He opened the door, and once we were all installed inside, my agent announced that we were going to meet the most in fashion mafia of Tokyo. They could be very touchy and that we would need to be very careful to deal with them with a certain level of respect.
Yakuzas! I was going to photograph yakuzas! Three hours later, we arrived at their hideout in a village at the foot of a mountain, with in the horizon Mount Fuji. It was Sunday the day of the local market. Waiting for us on the pavement, lined up un front of the fruit and vegetable stalls there were six large men, young and handsome, accompanied by a dwarf, dressed in an over the top style and covered in jewelry: gold diamond studded Rolex watch, gold chain with the Coco Chanel logo encrusted with ruby’s, an Issey Myake shirt, a massive signet ring next to his missing little finger!
Something that made me even keener to see these guys undressed.
They presented themselves ceremoniously, bowing lower than is the normal custom and then inviting us to join them for lunch at a renowned local restaurant. On the menu a giant soup and an even larger main course of huge raw horse steaks. They laughed very loudly as they told us that they were going to rent an entire hotel for the day, with hot tubs for me to shoot the photographs. They left me to find my way around the bathing area and set up the lighting, whilst they all disappeared to the bedrooms. A few minutes later the yakuzas, stark naked threw themselves into the tubs like children, proud to be photographed by a women, and leaving me to take what photographs I wanted.
After a very full day, we thought about returning to Tokyo, but a dinner had been organized in our honor, served in Japanese style in a huge dining room of the Hotel. There waiting for us was the head of the yakuzas who we had not seen up until this point.
Impressive in his white leather jacket with a gold Versace Logo, he presided over the seating of guests around the table, placing me directly in front of him. The restaurant staff, entered the room bowing, humble and trembling carrying an array of fabulous dishes with, the high-point being a local delicacy the Fugu a venomous fish dish. Of course it the honor of the first mouthful fell to the big boss. Suffering no ill effects, he invited us to join him, at the same time fixing me in his gaze; at this point I bowed my head. It was absolutely what I expected to do, as a woman I would not have been allowed to brave the look of the head yakuza.
At the dinner only his right-hand man was allowed to join us. The other henchmen were left to wait outside. Briskly, just after the dessert had been served, the boss got up and left the room without a word. In the entrance of the hall the five uninvited yakuzas waited for us, their arms full of wrapped presents only precious things following their tradition.
Having completed this improbable meeting, they gave me their word that if I visited again they would take me to Mount Fuji! Afterwards, I learnt that my editor had been at junior school with one of the Yakuzas, hence my incredible luck in meeting them and to have them undress for my camera.