By Joanna delalande
The scars of a violent past emphasise the smile of a man at peace
Pinkies cut off at the first knuckle, dragon tattoos on his arms and a long criminal record are the legacy of the Yakusa organized crime gang that Hiroyuki Suzuki joined at 17 years old when he lost a fight with a group of them.
"I was not scared of these people," Hiroyuki admits, "I was scared of the organization."
A life of gambling, drugs and womanizing ensued. An argument with a crime boss cost him one finger, a gambling debt cost him another.
He began the process of getting a full body tattoo, as per Yakuza ritual, though he only got to the arms before things began to change.
His third wife Mariko is the one who first encouraged him to go to church, advice he finally followed in 1990 when things started spiralling out of control.
With a gambling debt and an army of gangsters hot on his trace Hiroyuki fled to Tokyo, leaving behind his wife and daughter.
"That was the darkest point in my life," he says. "There were 800 Yakuza members trying to kill me and all I cared about was myself. I deserted my family, ran off with my girlfriend and smashed up bars. I had a human face, but I was a monster."
Having hit a new low, Hiroyuki curiously ventured inside a church, but initially struggled to accept God's Word for himself.
"The Bible seems [at first] to be far away, far from reality," he explains.
However, the three days spent there listening to God's Word so dramatically changed his life that he abandoned his criminal activities for a life of Christian ministry.
For a time he felt he would never completely be able to let go of his past, the marks on his body a painful and permanent reminder of the life he used to lead.
"My tattoos and missing pinkies are my handicap," he says. "I always tried to hide that fact. But after I met Jesus and came to know the Lord, I wanted to live with my true self."
Rather than reject and hide his past, he learned to embrace the powerful message of hope and salvation that is his story.
"The contrast of my happy face with my tattoos shows people things which words cannot convey. And it makes people wonder, 'Why is he so happy? Why is he acting happy? Why is that?' Instead of me talking, people come asking what happened – and then they ask about Jesus, because Jesus is the reason."
Hiroyuki realized he was good enough for God in spite of what he had done.
Once he accepted forgiveness for his crimes, he became a new man free from the guilt and shame his actions caused him. He writes about this spiritual journey in his autobiography Aisarete, Yusarete (Being Loved and Forgiven).
"Whether I have pinkies missing or tattoos, I want to live as I am," he says. "Jesus loves me as I am. So I just want people to know the Lord as they are.
"I hope that people will look at me and say 'If a Yakuza can start again, then so can I'."
Hiroyuki is currently a church pastor in Japan, braving persecution for the sake of the message of hope that ultimately saved his life. •
Suzuki and seven ex-mobster friends are the founders of the Barabbas Mission and their switch from crime to Christianity is told in the film ‘Jesus is my Boss’. (Photo credits YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)