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Last Updated: Monday, 17 May, 2004, 23:43 GMT 00:43 UK
Japan's mafia members seek 'respect'
By Charles Bodsworth
BBC, Japan

Japan's mafia, the infamous yakuza, have a fearsome reputation both at home and abroad.

Highly realistic prosthetics match the skin tone and texture
Anyone wanting to leave the criminal fraternity in Japan not only must convince their gang bosses, but also overcome the suspicions of society at large.

A man bearing the marks of a yakuza is likely to receive a frosty reception in respectable Japan.

Gangsters are known for the spectacular tattoos that sometimes cover most of their bodies. Most Japanese public pools and gyms as a result exclude anyone with a tattoo of any kind.

For a gangster wishing to pass unnoticed, tattoos can be covered or even removed, at a price.

But a different mark of a life of crime presents more of a problem.

One man I know has a dummy finger and gave as his motivation the fact that he did not want to embarrass his children when he was operating his video camera at school sports days
Dr Peter Hill, Oxford University
The traditional penalty for a yakuza who has erred against his gang is brutal and permanent.

In the practise of "yubitsume" the little finger is chopped off at the knuckle to demonstrate penitence. Further punishments can involve more joints being removed until the finger is gone entirely.

For a gangster content with social exclusion, public revulsion at a mutilated finger may not present much of a problem.

The Oxford University sociologist Dr Peter Hill, who studies trends in organised crime in Japan, says he has encountered a man in the city of Osaka who was not only missing a finger but who had his gang's crest tattooed on his forehead.

New clinic

But Japan's crime syndicates, like its legitimate businesses, have been feeling the pinch during the recent years of recession.

Maria Niino
Niino says she was "afraid at first" of her yakuza client

The result has been a surge in the number of gangsters leaving their life of crime, or at least doing their best to cover up their past.

A Tokyo clinic called the New Body Institute has inadvertently come to the aid of the country's reviled criminals.

The institute fits highly realistic prosthetic body parts which match the skin tone and texture of their human subjects and even change colour when exposed to heat or cold.

The clinic was founded in the early 1990s by Maria Niino who had previously undergone a mastectomy due to breast cancer.

She explains: "After my operation I felt as if Japanese doctors didn't care that I had lost a breast, so I started to research European prosthetic techniques which were far more advanced."

"I established my clinic because I wanted to help other women who had suffered like me," she says.

'Shaking yakuza'

But soon after she opened for business she found herself serving a far more unexpected clientele.

She described how she felt meeting her first yakuza client: "I was afraid at first. But actually, I think he was more afraid than I was - when he came in sandwiched between two policemen, he was actually shaking."

Throughout the 1990s Japan's crime syndicates were reeling from the twin blows of the national recession and a 1992 law against organised crime.

But as well as cracking down on the criminals the authorities offered them help to leave the yakuza and begin new lives.

Some companies have joined the effort and, through the police, offer jobs to reformed yakuza.

For those gangsters without tattoos or mutilated fingers joining a legitimate company is straightforward enough. But in a country wary of organised crime, employing people with severed fingers is out of the question.

'Appearing normal'

However, with a realistic prosthetic finger the prospect of a legitimate job can become a possibility.

Recently though, Ms Niino says she has noticed a shift in the aim of her gangster clients.

Far from turning their backs on crime, some now say they want to continue in the yakuza but to also have the option of appearing normal, she says.

"When their children get married, they want to be able to meet their in-laws and look like respectable people. And for that 10 fingers are necessary."

Dr Hill confirms this: "One man I know has a dummy finger and gave as his motivation the fact that he did not want to embarrass his children when he was operating his video camera at school sports days."

While the criminal nature of yakuza activities make reliable data hard to come by, Dr Hill says it is generally accepted that finger amputation is growing less common amongst gangsters.

In future, then, the unusual alliance between Japan's first clinic dedicated to prosthetic body parts and reformed yakuza may come to an end.

But for the time being Ms Niino is helping men who have changed their minds about their commitment to the criminal cause.

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