In Japan, a missing pinkie brands you as a yakuza member. One prosthetist is trying to help them move on from their past.
When "Mike" spotted a newspaper advert for a clinic making prosthetic fingers in the 90s, he thought it was a scam. But the ex-yakuza member had booked himself a consultation within the hour. For almost a decade, a stumpy pinkie on his left hand had marked out his previous allegiance to the criminal world, preventing him from leading a normal life.
A fake little finger, he thought, sounded outlandish, but it was worth a shot. It might allow him to disguise his past—and help shield against Japanese society's prejudiced view of ex-yakuza members in search of redemption.
"I wasn't sure if it would work," Mike told me, "but I really wanted to meet people without worrying about what they'd think."
"Yubitsume"—finger shortening—is a ritualistic form of self-amputation undertaken by members of the Japanese mafia or yakuza to atone for mistakes. The practice dates back to the 1700s, when gamblers known as bakuto would accept a person's severed finger in order to settle a gambling debt. The little finger on the left hand was chosen as its removal hampers a person's grip on their sword (katana), weakening them as an opponent.
In the 20th century, yakuza organizations adopted this practice. When lower-ranking members break the strict yakuza honor code and are deemed punishable by a higher-ranking yakuza, they will sever their left finger with a knife just above the top joint. In 1993, a government survey found that 45 percent of yakuza members had severed digits, with at least 15 percent having gone through the act twice. The pinkie piece is usually presented to their organization's oyabun (boss), wrapped in cloth, as a sign of repentance. If infractions accrue, the yakuza in question will continue down the joints of the left finger, gradually moving onto the little finger on the right hand. Further misdemeanors are met with death.
In recent years, stringent crackdowns on the yakuza—organized criminal gangs who engage in loan sharking, drug and sex trafficking—and a steady decline in their numbers have seen the practice of yubitsume decrease. But those with missing pinkies are permanently associated with gang life, and in a country where deeply entrenched stigmas around the organization prevail, something as subtle as a detachable fake finger could in some ways help assist fingerless ex-yakuza in reintegrating into society.
But it doesn't always mean that these ex-yakuza will permanently shake a life of crime.
"Mike," who requested I not use his real name, didn't know what to expect when he arrived at the clinic. He imagined he might be met with the stifling formality and red tape that he'd experienced every time he went to sort out his papers at the municipal office in Osaka city. Instead, he heard loud yelling reverberating through the building, and was surprised when a young woman with a shock of hair in her early 20s appeared to greet him.
The woman was Yukako Fukushima, a prosthetics maker, who—aside from making regular prosthetics—has for over a decade made hundreds of fake pinkies for ex-yakuza members wishing to leave gang life behind and find regular jobs. Usually one of Fukushima's fingers costs 180,000 yen ($1490), but she provides ex-yakuza in difficult financial situations with a discount.
Fukushima, now in her 30s, is a petite woman with a broad smile and booming laugh. She was born in Osaka, a prefecture in southern Japan. The area is home to the Yamaguchi gumi—the largest yakuza organization in the country. Twenty years ago, at the height of the Japanese economic boom, yakuza syndicates across Japan were more active. Disputes, said Fukushima, were common near the first clinic in the town of Tezukayama (now a high-class residential area), where she started her career as a prosthetics maker.
"They once threw explosives at someone's house near where I used to live," said Fukushima.
Interested in art and sculpture as a teenager, Fukushima described herself as a self-taught prosthetist. She discovered the profession by chance one summer day when she saw a man covering himself up with a large scarf at a clinic where she was training.
"I was young and I just asked him outright why he was so covered up when it was so hot," said Fukushima. The man revealed severe burns that had scarred his entire body and face, and left him without ears. Fukushima decided to help, coming up with a pair of DIY prosthetics that the man could put in place of his ears and use to hook up a mask that covered the lower part of his face.
Word spread of Fukushima's talents, and she soon found herself making prosthetic parts for others, including the yakuza. She drew on books, and studied cosmetics so she could make her prosthetics as realistic as possible.
"I taught myself how to start making prosthetics when I was 21. We still didn't have internet back then so it was hard to have access to information on prosthetics. I think my customers were my teachers," said Fukushima, who thought nothing of providing pinkies for ex-yakuza members in the early 1990s despite the stigma around them.
"I'm really not that intelligent, I just act on my impulses when I feel that people need help," she said.
Over a decade since his first meeting with Fukushima, Mike, a reticent man with an intimidating presence, sat comfortably with a steaming cup of coffee when I met him in the prosthetic maker's current work place, the Kobo Arte Kawamura Gishi. The clinic, littered with fake body parts, is tucked away in a small side street close to a vibrant indoor market in Osaka city.
"I wondered why she sounded so angry back then," said Mike, turning to Fukushima, who sat to his left. "I was worried that I was just getting myself involved in a really big scam."
At the time, Fukushima's other yakuza customers initially thought that she was heading up a shady business, and that they too might get ripped off.
"Back then, there weren't many women in this profession, and I guess they weren't expecting to be treated by one," said Fukushima, laughing heartily. "That wasn't me being angry back then either. I'm just naturally loud and I say what I think."
Since getting his first prosthetic pinkie from Fukushima at the age of 32, Mike has followed Fukushima each of the three times she switched clinics. Every December, he drops by for a general check up on his prosthetic little finger, replete with wrinkles and a nail. It gives both an excuse to exchange news on the other's life.
Mike was barely 20 when he joined the yakuza. Awed by their image and reputation, he knew little about the realities of gang life. But within three years, he knew he wanted out. So he left behind the tip of his pinkie, which his friend helped slice off, to atone for a broken promise and a chance of life away from the yakuza. Usually the yakuza self-amputate their pinkies, but sometimes they ask for assistance. Mike declined to comment on the circumstances that led to the act, but he told me that nobody ordered him to sever his little finger; he just felt an unspoken pressure to do so.
"It didn't hurt," he said. "It was probably all the adrenaline."
Mike hoped to rebuild his life.
"I wanted to work and return to a normal way of life. I knew that I would be looked at strangely and unable to do so if I didn't have a little finger."
There was, however, no smooth exit plan from the life of crime for those missing a left pinkie. Unable to find a job, he ended up joining a right-wing Japanese organization and spent the rest of his 20s shouting slogans and trying to rouse interest in extremist ideology.
Under the soft light in Fukushima's consultation room, only an attentive observer would detect Mike's prosthetic pinkie as a fake. Fukushima's prosthetics are tailored to her client's exact needs and skin tone, and Mike's appears just like his remaining digits. Most ex-yakuza will need their pinkies firstly for job interviews as they are likely to have their hands on their laps. Different social occasions such as drinking parties (nomikai) will require them to have either darker or lighter finger shades depending on whether they have their hands lowered (causing blood to flow down the arm and turn the finger redder), or raised (causing blood to flow away from the hand, reducing the redness).
Each of Fukushima's clients receives a consultation session, followed by a meeting where their fingers are moulded and skin tones decided before the mould is made and colors pasted in. Fukushima would not reveal the material that she used, but said that she uses red, blue and yellow to make over 1000 different skin tones, kneading in the shades so that if a customer scuffs their finger, the color underneath remains the same. The fingers are ready within around two months. Everyone is expected to respect the waiting list. Fukushima has a strict no-bribes policy.
Mike has two sets of fake fingers: one lighter shade for the winter, and another tanned shade for the summer.
When Fukushima first started making prosthetics for people, she didn't expect to see a steady increase in members of the yakuza seeking her services. She was one of the earliest to offer it, and she started out in the profession when it was largely male-dominated.
Despite severe societal prejudice against the yakuza, she had no qualms in treating them. However, she found her initial exchanges with them challenging.
"There's this perception of yakuza being wealthy. Even I thought that they'd have lots of money in their purses," said Fukushima. "But I came across customers who didn't pay or just legged it after they got their treatment. I got so annoyed that I asked them why the hell they weren't paying me, seeing as I wasn't treating them any differently to my other patients."
It turned out that many of Fukushima's ex-yakuza clientele had lost their money once they'd quit the organization, and found it impossible to find employers to take them on owing to their deficient digits.
"At the time, it wasn't widely known that former yakuza who left the crime syndicate had no home, and were often still being hunted by other gang members. This made it really hard for them to rebuild their lives," said Fukushima, who explained that employers were unlikely to take on the risk of hiring an ex-yakuza for fear of violence and scaring away customers.
"The ex-yakuza who come to my clinic wear pinkies for others, whereas people who lost their fingers due to accidents wear prosthetics for themselves."
In the early 1990s, when Fukushima first started making fake fingers for the ex-yakuza, social support for former yakuza members wishing to reform did not exist. Society showed little compassion toward the predicament of recent yakuza drop outs, and Fukushima was initially investigated by local police forces who thought she was colluding with criminal organizations. Things improved for her when the Anti-Bouryokudan Law took affect in March 1992, and the Osaka police established an ex-yakuza support council (ridatsu shien) in December 1992.
There is a difference, said Fukushima, between the public's response toward people who have purposely inflicted harm on themselves, and those who have suffered an injury owing to circumstances beyond their control.
"If you lost a finger in an accident, society would feel sympathetic toward you. But if you cut off your own finger, as it's your own decision, nobody pities you. In the end, the ex-yakuza who come to my clinic wear pinkies for others, whereas people who lost their fingers due to accidents wear prosthetics for themselves," explained Fukushima. "That's the real difference between the feelings between people and society, between the concepts of fear and compassion."
Fukushima recognizes that providing fake fingers does not secure a life away from crime for ex-yakuza members, but she explained that it creates conditions whereby former yakuza can blend into society and at least attempt to rebuild their lives. So she reduced the price of the prosthetic fingers, letting her yakuza clientele pay in monthly installments once they secured jobs.
In 2014, Fukushima was bestowed a Women's Challenge Award from the Japanese government's gender equality bureau for her entrepreneurial drive and her sustained efforts to help ex-yakuza members rehabilitate and reintegrate back into society. Since receiving the award, she has experienced a sea change in both public opinion and her family's reaction toward the work she does.
"My parents, friends, and even the guy I was dating used to cry for me. We were supposed to get married but he couldn't cope with my job and we split up," said Fukushima, who is now happily married and has a child. "They have more understanding toward what I'm doing now."
It has not always been easy. Throughout her career, Fukushima has dealt with irate yakuza who have thrashed around her practice and threatened her. Some have tried to pay her extra in order to get their fake fingers faster. But she stood her ground.
Over the years, Fukushima has celebrated the successes of those who have managed to cut their ties with the yakuza, and felt saddened when things fall apart.
"There was one man who came to see me to tell me that he was getting married to someone he loved very much. He wanted to come clean about his past to his fiancé's parents," said Fukushima. "I got a call a few months later: their engagement had been called off, and his fiancé's parents had forced her to get an abortion."
With the help of Mike and a network of other veteran ex-yakuza, Fukushima has introduced others who have recently quit the organization to a support network that can provide them with advice or even a job.
Remaining on the straight and narrow is, however, not possible for all. Some relapse into a life of crime, and once in awhile, Fukushima will receive letters from prison from former customers apologizing for their misdeeds.
"It's hard to get everything 100 percent right, but if you can help just one person, then that person might go on to have a family or be happy in some other way," said Fukushima.
"If I can make ten fingers and the owner of one of those manages to rebuild their lives, it makes me want to continue."
In the small consulting room, Mike puts his prosthetic pinkie back on.
"I feel emotionally freer when I'm wearing this prosthetic," he said. "I wear it all the time."
Mike is so attached to his fake little fingers that he often forgets to take them off, causing them to wear down more quickly. He kept the first ever fake pinkie he received from Fukushima as a memento.
"I still have that finger," revealed Mike, laughing. "It's in a really bad state."