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Posted at 9:05 a.m. PST Monday, January 4, 1999

British doctor linked to Japanese underworld

Scripps Howard News Service

BRADFORD, England -- Wearing a polka-dot tie and white surgeon's coat, he looks the model of a sober scientist. In the antiseptic corridors of St. Luke's Hospital, they call him ``The Prof.''

But Dr. Alan Roberts is well connected to a more sinister world. In Japan's notoriously violent mafia, gangsters who owe him a debt of honor call him ``Mr. Fingers.''

Roberts, Britain's leading skin scientist, is exporting false hands to Tokyo in a multimillion-dollar deal. His biggest customers are Yakuza -- members of Japan's underworld. They hack off their own fingers as part of a strict code of honor, to pledge loyalty to their bosses and to atone for wrongs.

Surgery to disguise the stigma is unreliable. Most opt for false limbs to conceal their life of crime.

In a technological breakthrough, Roberts, 64, has developed a technique for creating astonishingly lifelike body parts. He has exported his technology to the New Body clinic in Tokyo, which treats hundreds of patients every year.

New Body's director, Maria Niino, learned the technique from Roberts, who helps her tackle the most difficult cases. ``She is always sending me case studies and asking about the latest materials we are developing,'' he says.

``When I started, I thought I would be dealing with accident victims, cancer sufferers, amputees and people who had had bits of them bitten off in pubs. I knew about the Yakuza and their code of honor from watching movies, but I had no idea my work would be so popular with bandits. It's very big business.''

Kazushige Okazaki relinquished his life of crime after getting married but found it impossible to find a decent job or open a bank account because two fingers on his left hand were missing. He hacked them off to make amends for wounding a fellow gang member.

``People assumed I was Yakuza and were afraid. I felt no pain when I used a stone and a knife to cut my fingers off, but I felt bad that I could not change my life later on when I wanted to,'' he says.

He paid $8,000 for two new fingers and now wears gold rings at the base to hide the joins. ``It's changed my life,'' he says, grasping the new fingers, which took an hour to fit. ``People treat me as normal now. It means I can put my past behind me and start a new life with my family. I even have some feeling in my new hand.''

Cabinets full of spare fingers and hands in all shapes and colors line the shelves of Roberts's office. He uses chemicals to ``grow'' human-style skin and shape it into fingers. Acrylic nails and vein lines are added and the new digit is fixed to the knuckle with invisible glue.

Patients at the Tokyo clinic can choose between a huge range of false limbs. Some are ready to wear; others are finely crafted and matched to each patient and can cost up to $84,000.

``We even have an emergency spare parts kit for people who need a prosthesis in a hurry. These are the cheap ones,'' says Niino. Some gangsters want fingers they can put on for formal occasions like weddings and take off again the following day.

``I've had lots of customers from the wrong side of the law. Some have mended their ways. Others have not, but don't want people to know about their business. We can provide them with whatever they need.''

But it's not just Niino's clinic that benefits. Roberts's success has generated hundreds of thousands of pounds for Britain's National Health Service, funding new research into false limbs with skin that tans.

``We are exporting high technology to Japan which is helping British scientists to develop new techniques which we hope to patent soon,'' Roberts says. ``The more successful we are, the more funds we can raise for research.''

But how does he feel about his new technology benefiting gangsters?

``Provided the gangsters have repented their previous misdemeanors, they are entitled to help.''

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