"It was all fun and games until someone lost a pinky," said the Kumi-cho. Or something like that. If the tattoos many yakuza wear are the most enduring image, the amputated pinky fingers they sport are a close second. I think this particular tradition is what causes writers to stick the yakuza into "secret society" books and the like. The yakuza call it yubitsume. The ritual of cutting a finger off at the first knuckle.
Like tattoos, yubitsume is also visual shorthand for a director, comic artist, or writer to say, "shit's getting yakuza up in here." Very few yakuza stories go by without someone lopping a knuckle off. One particularly memorable sequence takes place in Battles Without Honor and Humanity, when Shozo Hirono performs the ritual. In a moment of dark comedy, he pushes the blade down and looks, only to find the missing joint, well, missing. While HIrono groans in pain, his brothers scramble around the gravel looking for the stump, finding it in the nearby flowerbed.
Historically, the ritual had a direct consequence. Wielding a katana with skill requires all of a swordsman's fingers and all the joints on those fingers. Cutting off a samurai's finger took away fine sword control and made him more dependent on his superior. Cutting off your finger as an apology was serious business.
I mean, it still is. But not for quite the same reasons. Nowadays, according to Peter Hill's The Japanese Mafia, the only thing it really affects is a yakuza's golf swing. Quite often, it's used as a preemptive apology. Even as a kid, you knew when you screwed up. My friend's brother would go stand in the corner in hopes of suffering less at his parents' hands later. If a member of the gang has done something that would cause trouble within the gang, cause loss of face for his oyabun, or worse, he might cut his finger off and deliver it, nicely packaged, to his boss as atonement.
While a yakuza's golf game is quite important to him, his swing is probably the last thing on his mind when he's getting ready to put his body-weight behind the blade.
The real consequence of yubitsume is societal. Just like tattooing, cutting off your finger off is a permanent physical brand, a signal to all that you are a part of the underworld. Sporting a missing finger like that is a quick route to unemployment in modern society. Incidentally, my old boss at K-Mart would've had a tough time finding a real job.
Part of what makes yubitsume such a strong apology is that it is inherently limited. One can only genuinely apologize so many times before he can't do the finger cutting himself anymore.
According to Hill, yubitsume is on the decline. Younger yakuza are preferring to pay fines. Yakuza with missing joints dropped, according to Hill, from 42% to 33% between 1971 and 1994. It still happens, though, and it isn't rare. It's a proud admission of sin and atonement within the crime family, and a sign to other that you are not to be messed with.
Atonement isn't the only reason one might perform yubitsume, though. There's also the weekly "half off" deal at the local ramen shop. Present a packaged joint for a free bowl of ramen!
No, no. Yubitsume for the purpose of apology is called "shinu yubi," literally "dead finger." The other kind is "iki yubi," or "live finger." An example of an iki yubi might be two bosses meeting to end a bloody war between their gangs. No one is apologizing, here. Rather, they're expressing to the other members of their gang and the executives of the other gang their complete, unquestionable sincerity.
Go ahead. Talk to the hand. Just try it.