Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I wrote earlier about the origin of the Japanese the ritual of chopping off pinkies. In Japan, the ritual comes the importance of the left pinkie in the grip of a Japanese sword. Removing the left pinkie is literally disarming and was used to punish people in the past. This has been ritualized and continues to be used by small number of Yakuza and others in Japan as a form of punishment or taking responsibility.

This is why I didn't understand why the Koreans were severing their fingers in protests against the Japanese. Two Koreans chopped their little fingers off in in front of the Japanese embassy in March to protest Japanese comments about the Dokdo islands and in 2001, 20 Koreans chopped their off their little fingers in protest against Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.

I was beginning to understand the issues that the Koreans were protesting against, but I didn't see how this finger chopping was involved. I decided to get to the bottom of this and asked friends during my trip to Korea.

Although it is an ancient custom, if I understand correctly, one of the most famous incidents was An Jung-geun, a legendary leader in the armed resistance against the Japanese occupation, chopping off parts of several of his fingers and writing "Korean Independence" in blood on the Korean national flag. Later he assassinated Japanese politician Hirobumi Ito in 1910. Hirobumi Ito was a key figure in the Meiji Restoration of Japan, former prime minister and former Resident-General of Korea. Using the blood from severed fingers to write such statements became a sign of solidarity in the resistance against the Japanese and I believe the recent finger chopping is a continuation of this.

I am not trying to make a statement about or a judgement on the anti-Japanese protests or the actions by the Japanese, but trying to clarify something that was confusing for me.

PS I found this article about the protests that ran in today's Korea Herald insightful on the relevance of these protests.

UPDATE: Edited post to reflect comments that An Jung-geun chopped his fingers before the assassination and that it's an ancient custom which didn't start with An Jung-geun.


Just curious, any relation to Hirbumi Ito?

Two Koreans chopped their little fingers off in in front of the Japanese embassy in March to protest Japanese comments about the Dokdo islands

I don't mean to cloud this thread with emotion, but just how far can people go in their demands for cultural sensitivity? I mean, that just seems whacko, no matter how you slice it.

I could be wrong, but I have noticed that Japanese and Korean people derive self-esteem and pride from mastery of a craft. Without full use of your hands, it's tough to master a craft. Perhaps the chopping is like a "little suicide".

Mike, I'm not related to Hirofumi Ito.

I would like to point out that these Koreans who are chopping off their fingers are regarded as strange even in Korea and are almost as confusing the normal Koreans as they are to us. I heard a rumor that they are possibly gang related members, but this is not confirmed.

Joi, I don't think all Koreans who chop off their fingers are considered strange in Korea. The act is a drastic form of expression Koreans use to show how determined they are. The measuring stick is the importance of the subject matter. Only those whose value system is out of wack with the norm in Korea will be considered strange.

For example, anyone chopping off a finger because they paid too much for their iPod would be silly. Doing the same or, even going one step further and setting oneself on fire, to protest against opening up rice market completely would not be silly if you are a Korean rice farmer.

As for me, I was raised to avoid using red ink to write my name because red is the color of blood and writing my name in red ink is like writing in blood. In 43 years, I've avoided writing my name in red ink and consciously so. But when I find a cause grave enough, I know I will.

I don't know where the tradition got started but Ahn jung-geon was not the first person to do this. Moodangs (Korean equivalent of voodoo doctors) write boojuk (paper imbued with a typically protective magical spell) in red ink.

Ancient scholars also wrote their name in blood when joining a secret cause or adding their name to a petition to the king (imagine how king might feel after receiving a full scroll of names written in blood). They did this by chewing off the tip of their forefinger and writing with blood flowing freely from the tip. This practice maybe where fingerchopping started in Korea.

While all this might seem strange to non-Koreans, I wish there were issues important enough to me to write my name in my blood. Modern American life is, unfortunately, rather bland.

Don - I should not have judged. If I felt powerless against an opressor, I might do something drastic to show my conviction. Yoshiteru Murakami is famous for the gruesome act of committing harakiri and then throwing his entrails at his enemy. While a thatched hut burned to the ground around him, Murakami cursed at the attackers and continued to throw guts from his gaping wound. I think this was honorable because the diversion allowed Murakami's master to escape out the backdoor and because the warrior showed that his enemy's oppression was more distasteful and odious than death itself. I doubt I'll ever forget the story of the Korean protestors, either.

Some bow and some don't. Some belch an some don't. Some like red doors and some like white. Culture differences are something to be enjoyed by learning about them and respecting them.

When I was over in Seoul recently, it had been said to me that the Koreans were big into democracy, spelled "demo-crazy". ;) I would have to agree, at least based on what I saw in a few weeks.

Mike, misunderstanding is a boat. Where there is a boat going one way, there is a boat coming the other way. If you are a traveller, you'll find your way there. If not, here is as good as there.

As Don has described, the finger-chopping has been considered , throughout the Korean history, as an action to express his (yes, in all cases in the strong conficious tradition) strong opinion or commitment and dedications for the country. Ahn Jung-Geun is not the first, but the most well-known to Koreans, case of the finger-chopping to express his dedication to his (then-lost) country, made before the his assissanation of Ito Hirobumi.

I believe it is not to be judged by other culture whether it is proper or not. Just like harakiri in Japanese culture.

Ji Ho. Thanks for the clarification. I'll fix the entry to reflect your points.

And I agree about not judging.

A very interesting and insightful post, Joi! You could turn this into an article if you ever had the time or inclination. Nice historical details and reference points. This is more than I've found out from any of the mainstream media. It's clear, you haven't lost your touch ;-)

Joi et al,

Check out the movie "2009," a Korean production that postulates an alternate Japan/Korea history from 1910 forward in which Korea remains a colony of Japan while Korean resistance fighters (or terrorists, depending on your point of view) use terror tactics to try to win back their independence. Lots of gun battles and even some time travel. A wild ride!

Slightly related....but interesting.

In the early 90's I stayed in Osaka for a summer with a close friends family. The father was an oyabun for the yamaguchi-gumi and pretty much ran the show down there. We were at lunch eating ramen and he is sitting next to me sticking the stumps of his little fingers in his ears and making "popping" sounds. A few sapporo's had killed off my 'curiousity/cat' rule so I asked how he did it.

To the distinct consternation of the tables around was visually demonstrated that fishing line, a sushi knife and a helpful heel kick work wonders on finger joints.

His was an odd story (if my translating of osaka/yakuza-ben was holding) in that he was one of the only to have ever taken off both joints of his left pinky AND both joints of his right in the same sitting. All to prove his loyalty regarding"unfortunate misunderstanding".

Dear Joi, great post. I just wanted to point out that ritual dismemberment of fingers and using it to write protest slogans is something that has happened not only in Korea but also in Japan.

For many Japanese, the Korean protests would resonate strongly with a similar tradition of protest in Japan (see my post, which I backtracked).

So, yakuza pinkeys notwithstanding, I'm not sure if there is much of a "difference in meaning of finger chopping in Korean and Japan," as you suggest in your title. It would depend on which Japanese (and as the comments have noted, which Koreans) you speak to. :-)

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