The Real Reason Yakuza Members Cut Off Their Fingers

According to the Journal of Injury and Violence Research, a 1993 study showed that just shy of half of the members of the yakuza had been ritualistically deprived of a portion of their finger, and that 15% of those had undergone the procedure more than once.

The practice is called "yubitsume," or "finger shortening," and it goes back over a hundred years. It is theorized that it all started with bakuto, the heavy gambling proto-yakuza of 18th and 19th century Japan. If a person found themselves in the red, they would have a chunk of their little finger removed as an alternative means of payment. In his book The Naked Man, Desmond Morris discusses the ritual, which the Journal of Injury and Violence Research describes as such: "A small piece of clean cloth is placed on a flat surface. The offender places his left hand, palm down, on the cloth and uses a tanto, or sharp knife, to amputate his small finger at the DIP [first knuckle]. The severed portion of the small finger is wrapped in the cloth and handed to the head of the offender's yakuza family, who supervises the event."

To paraphrase the cowboys in Blazing Saddles, man, they are strict.

When you point a finger, there are 2 1/2 pointing back at you

Beyond the pain of losing a digit and the stigma associated with carrying an iconic disfigurement, this particular injury, as carried out by the bakuto, came with other downsides. A sword couldn't be held effectively, as so much of the hilt's pressure went into the little finger. In essence, offenders were leaving themselves helpless. As time marched forward, and the bakuto made way for the Yakuza, some of their rituals lived on: Full-body tattoos and illegal gambling became part and parcel with the Yakuza, as did the practice of yubitsume.

The way that it's described by folks who went through it, the ritual is a sort of honor-bound penance. It's a way of apologizing for your mistakes and showing deference to your superiors. Perhaps more pressingly, it comes with the guarantee that further mistakes will mean fewer knuckles: It is a grim, traumatic, pinky promise that you may yet forever lose the ability to really rock a ukulele.