(photo by Nesnad is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)
“Sleeping with the fishes” is an age-old idiom associated with the mob as a punishment for serious offenders of their code of honor. The phrase actually dates back to ancient Greece, being first referenced in The Iliad. It’s not the only retribution the mob carries out, though. In Japan, the mob is called the yakuza. When the yakuza wants to penalize an offending member – but not fatally – one permanent and still painful punishment is yubitsume.
Yubitsume is a self-inflicted punishment. It is “the ritualistic self-amputation of the proximal digits at the distal interphalangeal joint (DIP) among members of the Japanese mafia, or yakuza.” In layman’s terms, it means voluntarily cutting off one of your own fingers. This type of hazing is enforced as a way to elicit an apology. If someone has done something wrong or violated the code of the mob, performing yubitsume is how one atones to his superiors. There are some cases where it’s not voluntary and done to the victim, though these instances are less common than self-amputation.
The Origin of Yubitsume
Yubitsume can be directly translated to “finger-shortening.” It originates from gamblers in 18th century Japan who were called bakuto, another type of mob organization. They used yubitsume to make up for one’s debts. Back then, the implications of losing a finger were severe. One less finger could critically impact a man’s ability to use a sword, negatively effecting his self-defense. Debtors who couldn’t pay the bakuto back would be marred for life. They would also be at a constant disadvantage in sword fights, leaving them permanently dependent on their mob boss for protection. This atonement and debasement of gang members was carried over to the yakuza.
Yubitsume is not simply a chore to be carried out. It’s performed as a ritual or a ceremony.
Traditionally, it takes place under the supervision of the boss of the yakuza. The offender places his left hand flat on a clean cloth and cuts his pinky finger off at the knuckle. He then wraps the amputated part of his finger in the cloth and presents it to the boss. One testimony of an ex-yakuza member stated that rather than using a cloth, he placed the severed portion of is finger in a jar of alcohol and sent it to the boss who wasn’t present at the ritual. Repeat offenders will amputate the remaining portion of their pinky the second time and move on to their right pinky finger upon a third offense. One member in the 1970s had amputated half of his fingers – keeping both his thumbs and middle fingers and the pointer finger on his right hand. So many apologies lead one to wonder the efficacy of the punishment.
It has been thought that some consider yubitsume as the lesser of two evils: a way of avoiding a worse punishment. Researchers who have studied the practice believe that it was a punishment willingly chosen by the perpetrator to show repentance. Others have found that yubitsume is not always performed by a guilty party, but by one who wants to resolve a conflict through this irrevocable sacrifice as a symbolic end to the dispute.
In the ‘90s, the Japanese government estimated that a whopping 45% of members of the yakuza had performed yubitsume.
An additional 15% had performed it twice. Some members have even performed it more than that. The high number of offenders speaks volumes as to the seriousness of the yakuza’s code of honor.
Today, yubitsume’s popularity has dwindled.
It’s hard to reason why, since mobsters tend to have less reasonable morals. Statistics gathered have shown that violence committed by the yakuza has dwindled overall. Assaults and murders by the gang have been cut in half since 1980. In recent years, internal punishment within the yakuza has tended to be financial, with offenders paying large fines to atone for their gaffs. Some symbolically cut their hair, rather than their appendages, and a shaved head takes the place of a missing finger as a visual cue to identify offenders. One explanation for the decline in violence in general, and thus yubitsume, is the yakuza’s desire for more inconspicuous dealings. The police have begun to crack down on organized crime in the 21st century and glaringly characteristic evidence of being in a gang – i.e. yubitsume – can set off alarm bells.
Yubitsume starkly marks a (former) member of the yakuza. Missing a digit so neatly that it can’t be written off as an accident will raise questions, though everyone knows the answer: yakuza.
In order to stem the judgement, ex-Yakuza members have begun to sought out a prosthetic appendage to cover up their past.
One woman in particular specializes in the trade. Yukako Fukushima is a prosthetics maker who has provided for hundreds of ex-yakuza members since the 1990s. Her work allows them to exist in society without prejudice. Many mobsters start when they’re young and naive and are unable to leave the gang if their interest wanes. Fukushima gives them the chance to cover up the daily reminder of their past. Affording the prosthetic is difficult for some, but having them allows ex-members to have a chance at getting a job and rebuilding an honest life. Fukushima provides more than physical care. She has helped connect ex-members to social support and rehabilitation in the hopes of preventing them from relapsing to criminal activity.
Many associate Japanese culture with the concept of honor. This is undeniable a huge element in the yakuza. It helps to enforce a strict hierarchy of power and respect in a criminal organization. When such a group exists in violence, though, consequences are severe. While mobs in America are known historically known for murder, the yakuza is well-known for yubitsume.