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Pointing to penitence

TOKYO - The long arm of the law is coming to the rescue of the shortened fingers of Japanese gangsters by putting toes on them, writes Terry McCarthy. Or, to be scientific, Japan's police are introducing gangsters, who have cut off the tips of their fingers in a ritual disfigurement, to a surgeon who specialises in rebuilding the fingers by grafting on a toe joint. And the reason? 'Because we want to go straight, guv.'

Japan's gangster syndicates, or yakuza, are bound by ancient rituals of kinship and obedience. One of the more gruesome customs is the severing of a fingertip - usually the little finger - as a gesture of atonement to one's boss if one makes a mistake. Since even yakuza are human, and make mistakes, the number of crooks in Japan minus one or more fingers is considerable. The severing of fingertips makes members instantly recognisable. This is where the police and the specialist surgeon come in. setting up a hotline for yakuza who would like to leave their lives of crime, the police received a rush of callers - many of whom were worried that they could not get ordinary jobs because of the missing-finger stigma.

Enter Mitsuo Yoshimura, a surgeon in Fukui. For 1 million yen (4,760), he offers to replace the missing digit with one of the patient's middle toes. The police have passed on Mr Yoshimura's name to enquirers and his waiting list is full until next May.