Yasumasa Aoki, 64, looks every inch a senior Japanese executive on his day off: buzz cut, metal frames perched neatly on his high-bridged nose, buttoned-up shirt tucked neatly into jeans, and feet shod in grey sneakers.
His demeanor is kindly; his voice polite and well-modulated. But one inevitably notices the severed fingers on his hands: two on his left, one on the right.
On a Japanese man, missing fingers usually mean one thing: He is, or used to be, a member of the yakuza, the country’s notorious organized crime syndicate.
Yubitsume is a well-known atonement ritual in yakuza culture. When members have done something to displease their boss or bring dishonor to their gang, they have to self-amputate part of a finger, starting from the little finger and moving up to the index.
The practice can be traced to the way Japanese swords are traditionally held, with the last three fingers used for control and grip. Amputation results in a weaker sword grip, causing the offender to rely more on his group instead of acting on his own.
Mr Aoki, a former gang leader with the Inagawa-kai, Japan’s third-largest yakuza family, has performed yubitsume four times, twice on his right little finger. The last ritual took place more than 15 years ago, on his left fourth finger.
“It was very difficult as there was a lot of bone so I had to use my leg to step on the knife,” he says, grinning at the horrified expression of the Japanese interpreter.
He did it after kidnapping another triad leader in a case which left several people dead, resulted in a $500,000 bounty on his head and landed him in prison for 15 years.
He left prison last year, the bounty still on his head. But it is not giving him sleepless nights.
“All the yakuza members I knew are either dead or have gone on to do other things. But if God says I have to go, I will go. I don’t want to worry,” he says.
He is a changed man.
He used to freely draw his katana or samurai sword to express his rage, but now finds solace in the Bible.
“All I want to do now is set up a halfway house for ex-convicts when I return to Japan,” says Aoki, who recently completed a seven-month course at the City Harvest Church School of Theology in Jurong West.
He was born in Kamakura City in Kanagawa Prefecture, just outside Tokyo, the second of three children of a civil servant and his mistress, a former geisha.
“When I became older, I found out that my father had tattoos and was a former yakuza too,” says Aoki, who has the image of a warrior monk flanked by a tiger and dragon inked indelibly across his chest and entire back right down to his thighs.
He was a bully in school, taking delight in roughing up those he did not like. He was 12 when something happened that hardened his heart, he says.
“I had to attend a summer camp and my mother sent me off at the train station. When I came home three days later, my father, instead of my mother, was at the railway station waiting for me. I found it unusual,” he says.
When they reached home, he found his younger sister with a woman who his father said would be their new mother. “My own mother had moved to another city and when I went to see her, she already had a new life with another man.
“It hurt me a lot. I lost all faith in adults and all trust in human beings. I felt there was no place for me at home and that I had to be tough and protect myself.”
He soon dropped out of school, became a teenage terror, was caught and locked up, and finally joined a triad.
The next two decades were turbulent ones. He fought, did drugs, was promiscuous, went through three marriages — he has two sons in their 30s whom he has not seen for 15 years — and was jailed twice, once for six years after grievously hurting a man with his katana.
The incident which landed him in prison for 15 years took place in 1995. He was an unwilling participant, he says.
“In the old days, the yakuza had a lot of money. But in the early 1990s, the Japanese asset bubble burst. Many yakuza members could not afford the lifestyle they used to have,” he says.
One of them was one of his bosses, who ended up with debts of $17 million. Desperate, the latter hatched a plan to kidnap a high-ranking triad leader and roped in Aoki, who was reluctant initially.
“He told me how he had it all planned out. I knew I couldn’t say no because if I did, I would probably be killed,” he lets on.
What transpired would have made a great movie script, with tragic and comic elements.
A team of 10 was assembled. Masquerading as deliverymen, five of Aoki’s men turned up at the target’s home, kidnapping him when he opened the door. But after the deed was done, the mastermind had cold feet and wanted the man freed.
“I said no, we had to get the ransom,” Aoki says. The irony was that, instead of the $17 million they demanded, they ended up getting only $500,000.
“I know, it’s like a comedy,” he says, shaking his head.
But the repercussions were disastrous, resulting in the suicide of the mastermind and the deaths of several others. Aoki became a wanted man by both the yakuza and the police, and went on the run for 45 days. Meanwhile, a bounty was put on his head by a rival gang.
On Nov 16, 1995, he surrendered to the police. He was sentenced to 15 years’ jail on charges that included kidnap and the possession of firearms.
When he entered Tokushima prison, he was hell-bent on leaving his yakuza days behind. But his past caught up with him. Someone related to the kidnapped man recognized him and, during a prison baseball match, came up behind Aoki and delivered several blows to his head with a hammer. His skull was fractured.
When he came to in hospital, the first thing he saw was a Bible by his bedside. He says he picked it up and found comfort when he started reading it. Soon, he was attending Bible study sessions in prison.
Not long after the attack, he was transferred to a maximum-security prison in Kumamoto and it was there that he was baptized.
Pastor Yoji Nakamura, 42, from the Kumamoto Harvest Church who counsels inmates at the prison, first met Aoki at a Christmas party in 2004.
“He was very sincere about wanting to turn over a new leaf; there was no need to persuade him. He started corresponding with me, and at his request, I would also see him once every two months,” he says.
Aoki was released in March last year, and with help from his older sister, rented a room in an apartment near Pastor Nakamura’s church.
“He would come every day, and help to clean and take care of the place,” says Pastor Nakamura.
The former gangster came to Singapore in February this year on a City Harvest scholarship and recently completed his theology course, sitting through the English lessons with the help of a translator.
Not proud of the life he has led, he says: “I know I’ve hurt a lot of people ever since I was 15. I pray every day to find release from all the pain and suffering I have inflicted.”
Setting up a halfway house for former convicts is what he most wants to do now, to help them avoid going back to their old ways. He will be working on the project with Pastor Nakamura.
“After I’ve done this, perhaps I will go and see my children. They know me as a yakuza father. I don’t want to see them until I have done something worthwhile,” he says.