If you mention yakuza to someone in Japan, or even abroad, two things often come to mind: missing fingers and tattoos. Yubitsume which literally translates to “finger-shortening”, is the practice of severing one’s finger at the joint, usually beginning the left pinky and moving along the hand if it needs to be performed more than once.[i] The ritual traces its origins to bakuto (Japanese gamblers), who introduced the process as a punishment for failure to pay one’s debts. Severing the fingers was not only an extremely painful process, but it also weakened the victim’s sword hand, limiting their defensive capabilities.[ii]
Under the yakuza code there are two general forms of yubitsume. The first is shinu yubi, or “dead finger”, which is performed when a yakuza commits some sort of offense. The offender severs his finger with a tanto (a Japanese short sword) and offers it to his oyabun (boss) wrapped in a white napkin as payment for said offense. The second is iki yubi, or “living finger”, which is performed to avoid a conflict. In this scenario, the yakuza severing his finger is usually not responsible for the offense committed, and is offering his own finger as a means of conflict resolution. Since the direct offender does not offer the iki yubi, it is seen as a form of extreme and sincere loyalty.[iii]
A government survey conducted in 1993 revealed that 45% of modern yakuza had performed yubitsume, and that 15% had performed the ritual at least twice.[iv] In recent years the practice has declined due to government crackdown, with younger yakuza simply paying fines they commit offenses. Many yakuza and ex-yakuza use prosthetic fingers due to the social stigma attached to missing fingers; each prosthetic costs somewhere around $3000.[v]
[i] Bosmia, Anand N., Christoph J. Griessenauer, and R. Shane Tubbs. “Yubitsume: Ritualistic Self-amputation of Proximal Digits among the Yakuza.” Journal of Injury and Violence Research. Kermanshah University of Medical Sciences, 06 July 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
[ii] “Yubitsume: The Art Of Slicing Your Own Pinkie Finger Off.” So Bad So Good. So Bad So Good PTY LTD., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
[iii] “Yubitsume Explained.” Yubitsume Explained. Everything Explained Today, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
[iv] Bosmia, Anand N., Christoph J. Griessenauer, and R. Shane Tubbs. “Yubitsume: Ritualistic Self-amputation of Proximal Digits among the Yakuza.” Journal of Injury and Violence Research. Kermanshah University of Medical Sciences, 06 July 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
[v] Fujita, Akiko. “Prosthetic Fingers Help Reform Japan’s Feared Yakuza Gangsters.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 07 Jan. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.