Why Yakuza Members Chop Off Their Pinky Fingers

In March this year, The Outsider became yet another Netflix film to hit the streaming service, to much fanfare and excitement, not least because of the appearance of Academy-Award winning rockstar Jared Leto.

Set in 1954, in the decade after the Second World War (which the Japanese now refer to as the Pacific War), it sees Jared Leto as Nick Lowell, the only US inmate in an Osaka prison.

After saving the life of a fellow inmate and Yakuza, Lowell is freed, given a job by the Shiromatsu clan, and becomes embroiled in the criminal underworld.

In order to stave off warfare with a rival clan, Nick agrees to perform an act of Yubitsume. In doing so, he is made a fully fledged member of his own clan. The price? His pinky finger.

While the film may be fiction, the act of Yubitsume itself does exist, and is well known among Yakuza members. But what exactly is it?

He won't be making promises he can keep anytime soon (Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons)
He won't be making promises he can keep anytime soon (Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Yubitsume, which translates to 'finger shortening' (or yubi o tobasu/'finger flying'), is a method of atonement for serious wrongdoing, and involves cutting off your little finger (or a portion of it). Clinton's Cards and text messaging didn't exist when it first came to prominence, but it still seems a bit far if you ask me.

Its origins are unclear, but thought to date back to the bakuto. The bakuto were itinerant gamblers in Japan from the 18th to 20th centuries. Along with the tekiya, they are seen as the forerunners of what is now the Yakuza.

Yubitsume was used as a method of atonement for those who could not afford to pay off gambling debts.

The pinky finger is not only the most important finger for making promises, it was also the finger with which a Japanese Kendo sword could be gripped most tightly. Therefore, a gambler forced to shorten their finger would no longer be able to hold a sword properly, weakening them for life, and making them more dependent on their boss.

Credit: Viral Press
Credit: Viral Press

When performing the ritual, the sorry gambler lays their left hand down on a piece of cloth and cuts a portion of it off with a tantō knife, before presenting it to their oyabun (godfather or boss) or gang leader.

The left hand is used because left handedness is still seen negatively in Asian cultures, with only 0.7 per cent of Japanese children eating with their left hand, and 1.7 per cent writing. Until recent generations, left handedness had a similar stigma attached to it in western cultures, with children often beaten for using their left hand.

A Yakuza member can face further punishment (in the form of more Yubitsume) if they continue to commit offences, while those that cease to do so (which you would think they'd know is a very bad idea) may face expulsion from the organisation.

Featured Image Credit: Viral Press

Ronan O'Shea

Ronan J O'Shea is a freelance journalist from London who has written for titles including LADbible, Headspace, The Independent, National Geographic Traveller and New York Post. Contact him at [email protected]

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