Outlaws: Flying Fingers

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Photo by Ari Helminen.

When words fail, he speaks with his hands: more specifically, his fingers.

He is given a sharp-edged tanto, or short-bladed knife, and a small, spotless cloth. The hand rests palm-down on the cloth. He places the knife just above the top knuckle of his left pinky, and in one swift motion, his apology to his oyabun – his boss, his surrogate father – lies in a pool of blood on the table. It is carefully wrapped and presented to the oyabun, who accepts the gangster’s apology, and the missing fingertip, just like the hand-poked and multi-colored tattoos covering nearly every inch of the repentant gangster’s body, becomes another distinctive mark of his membership in the yakuza.

The practice of yubitsume, or “finger shortening,” is sometimes referred to as yubi o tobasu, loosely translated as “he let his finger fly.”

Yubitsume dates back to 18th century Japan and the Tokugawa shogunate. The bakuto, forerunners to the modern-day yakuza, were itinerant gamblers, often social outcasts who prowled towns and highways, playing dice games or card games like hanufada shirtless in order to best expose their elaborate tattoos while they shuffled cards and rolled die. During the Tokugawa shogunate, local authorities frequently hired them to win back the earnings of resident laborers for a percentage, and when a debt could not be paid, a tip of one’s finger was collected as recompense.

When a member of the yakuza lets his finger fly after displeasing his boss, the ritual symbolizes the weakening of his grip on his sword. Repeated infractions move the severing down the finger to additional joints, then up the hand, from the ring finger to the index. The lowest three fingers, according to Japanese swordsmanship, grip the hilt of a sword the tightest, and to sever a joint of the pinky is to make the swordsman less reliant on himself and more dependent on his fellows for protection.

In recent years, the yakuza have utilized prosthetic fingertips to disguise this unique feature of their appearance, but the effect for them is the same. Shortening individual fingers, even the amputation of singular members, serves to strengthen the group – and to tighten the fist.

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