Photo By Nesnad – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53953864
One trait of yakuza that is frequently showcased in movies and other media, is the act of cutting off a fingertip to repent for a wrongdoing. This practice is called “yubitsume”, or “finger shortening”.
The supposed roots of yubitsume trace back to era of itinerant gamblers called “bakuto”, who are considered to be predecessors of the yakuza. If a gambler were unable to pay back his debts, cutting off the tip of the pinky finger was sometimes considered a way to make amends. Another theory is that the pinky is required to grip a sword properly, and by weakening someone’s ability to fight or defend themselves, it ensured their dependence on their gang for protection.
Today, yubitsume is used to repent for an offense made. Depending on the gravity of the issue, the fingertip may be cut, or all the way up to the second knuckle. Furthermore, in dire situations, a leader may have to cut off his finger to make amends for something that his subordinate has done. Once the fingertip has been removed, it is wrapped in a white cloth and delivered to one’s superior, or whoever is being apologized to. Yubitsume may also be combined with other punishments, including being expelled from their gang.
Although yubitsume is considered a ceremonial act, the fact that it is not always performed in front of the offended party does leave some windows for making the task easier. Tying a string around the finger will reduce blood flow and numb the finger somewhat. There have even been stories of yakuza having their fingertip removed surgically so they could be anesthetized for the act, then delivering the finger as though they had cut it off themselves.
While tattoos are prominent in identifying a yakuza, they can be hidden under clothes, while a severed fingertip is more difficult to hide. However, doctors and artisans are making headway in providing lifelike prosthesis for former yakuza, who need help securing legitimate employment and housing in a society that doesn’t trust them.