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Ex-mobsters seeking new pinkies, new life

Japanese mobsters who want to go straight have found a friend in Maria Niino, queen of the plastic pinkie prosthesis. For $3,000 and up, she will craft a flawless silicone clone of a little finger for former yakuza who have sliced off theirs in an age-old gesture of loyalty.

Beset by recession, growing public intolerance and an anti-gangster law that is slowly putting the squeeze on Japan's traditional tough guys, more than 300 former yakuza have come to Niino to be made whole again in the eyes of Japanese society.

"They can't make a living as yakuza anymore," she said. "They can't get jobs if they don't have little fingers, so they come here."

One client's daughter couldn't find a husband until daddy got a full set of digits. Another pinkie-less former yakuza came to Niino for a fitting after the humiliation of being denied permission to enter Guam by a sharp-eyed U.S. immigration officer.

These are hard times for the yakuza. The Japanese gangsters, like the legitimate businesses they serve and prey upon, are being forced to change their ritualistic ways to survive in a harsh economic environment. As emboldened merchants refuse to pay protection money, and the yakuza's other traditional occupations _ money-lending, collections and gambling _ wither, they are turning to financial crimes.

Japan Inc. also is becoming less hospitable to another species of gangster, the sokaiya. These secretive racketeers specialize in extorting money from image-conscious Japanese companies by threatening to disrupt carefully scripted shareholders' meetings or expose corporate scandals.

The business climate for the mob just got worse with the recent revelations that three of Japan's top-tier corporations _ the prestigious Takashimaya department store chain, Nomura Securities and food giant Ajinomoto _ have allegedly been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to racketeers to get them to keep their shareholders quiet.

While the police are moving in on one flank, a feisty shareholders' rights group is trying to muscle the mob off of the corporate payroll. They have begun filing lawsuits demanding that errant company executives empty their own pockets to reimburse shareholders for any illegal payoffs.

A campaign to prompt the public to stand up to gangsters seems to be having some effect. People who have been threatened or beaten up by mobsters are urged to press charges, and tenants have organized to evict yakuza offices from their buildings.

Customers sporting tattoos are no longer welcome at many saunas and hot springs, and so some former yakuza are having their trademarks burned off with lasers. Plastic surgeon Yoshinori Ishii has treated 70 or 80 former yakuza since 1992. He gives deep discounts off the $25,000 price for people who come with police introductions.

Lately, Dr. Ishii and pinkie-maker Niino have seen a dropoff in business. Yakuza membership, which stood at about 91,000 when the anti-gangster law took effect, fell to 79,300 in 1995. But last year, for the the first time, enrollment inched up again to 79,900.

Experts say the most powerful yakuza families consolidated during the shakedown, and are starting to crack down on defectors and step up recruitment.