Lefties push back against Japan’s ‘righteous’ spin

by Sarah Suk

Staff Writer

Yu still remembers her mother’s firm words: “You’re using your other hand.”

“She wasn’t exactly forceful, but when I was little she would say this whenever I grabbed a crayon or spoon with my left hand,” recounted the 45-year-old. “Maybe it’s the fact that she said it so kindly that left such a strong impression on me. It’s never left my mind.”

Having grown up in Osaka, Yu — who believes she is naturally left-handed — learned to eat and write with her right hand but plays most sports with her left hand. She declined to give her surname.

When her mother is around, Yu says she is always careful not to use her left hand.

“So I would try to do everything with my right hand in her presence. With sports I can’t help but use my dominant hand, but luckily I never had to play sports in front of her,” she said, laughing.

Lefties are a minority in this world, where roughly 90 percent of the population is right-handed. Some, like Yu, have had to adjust to what is considered a social norm by changing their handedness, if not entirely then at least with some activities.

Left-handed children in Japan have long been methodically forced to use their right hand for tasks such as using pencils and chopsticks for a variety of reasons, including social stigma, though that has since changed.

“They used to say that being left-handed was one of the reasons people couldn’t get married so they were forced to use their right hand,” said 42-year-old Hiroo Urakami, president of Kikuya Urakami Syouji Co., which runs a stationery store in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, with a section devoted to goods tailored to lefties.

Takeshi Hatta, professor of neuropsychology at Kansai University of Welfare Sciences, said parents used to resort to methods such as putting hot pepper on a child’s left hand or tying it up, but studies show that the practice of changing children’s handedness was no longer the norm in Japan by the 1970s.

But that doesn’t mean it has entirely disappeared.

In an online questionnaire on southpaws conducted by The Japan Times in the lead-up to International Left-Handers Day on Monday, respondents included several Japanese in their 20s who said they were told by parents and teachers to write and eat with their right hand.

The survey showed that 65.7 percent of the 68 respondents who grew up in Japan were forced to change handedness in one way or another and that about half resisted. That compares with only 27.6 percent of the 405 respondents raised overseas, of whom 68.8 percent resisted.

On the whole, 33.2 percent of the 473 lefties from Japan and around the globe who responded said they were forced to use their right hand at home, school or in other settings. Of them, 66 percent resisted.

But whether or not they are free to use their dominant hand, left-handers have to live in a world where a great many devices are designed for right-handers. These range from pens, spiral notebooks and scissors to wristwatches, vending machines and ticket gates.

Seventy-two percent of all respondents said they feel inconvenienced when using such items.

The stationery store in Sagamihara responds to their needs with about 100 types of goods customized for lefties, including ladles, can openers, rulers, pencil sharpeners, playing cards and Japanese teapots.

Urakami, who is left-handed but writes and uses scissors with his right hand, says there are online shops that sell lefty items but believes his brick and mortar store in Kanagawa is a rarity.

“We’ve always had products for left-handers in stock and sold them to customers who asked for them, but we started displaying them at the store in 1998,” the third-generation shop owner said. “Back then we also sold the items online but stopped doing so after a couple of years because we want people, whether they are right-handed or left-handed, to come and actually see and touch the products.”

He has noticed a surge in the popularity of left-handed goods in recent years among both residents and visitors. Just this week, a family of four came from Brazil to Japan, and one of the key purposes of the trip was to look for lefty goods for one of their daughters.

Despite rising consumer interest, Urakami said not many manufacturers are willing to commit to making products for lefties because they simply do not sell as well as those for righties. Some firms are working on products usable by both.

Hiroo Urakami shows a teapot designed for lefties at his stationery store in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Hiroo Urakami shows a teapot designed for lefties at his stationery store in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture. | SARAH SUK

While conventional vending machines have coin slots on the right side, beverage-maker DyDo Drinco Inc. introduced a type in 2003 with a large receptacle in the middle where customers can drop in multiple coins simultaneously. Many of these have been installed in high-traffic areas across the country, including hospitals, schools and parks, according to Makoto Nakagawa of DyDo’s corporate communications department.

In 2016 pen-maker Zebra Co. came out with a series of ballpoint pens containing gel ink that dries instantaneously. The pens are designed to make writing less messy for lefties, whose hands get smeared with ink as they write.

One field where instructors insist on doing things the “right” way, however, is shodō (Japanese calligraphy).

Seisen Furukawa, who runs Nishi-Azabu Shodo Studio, said she asks her students — regardless of hand dominance — to use their right hand largely because the structure of the characters dictates the direction and order in which each stroke is written.

“The characters are generally written from left to right, so you can’t see what you’re writing when you write with your left hand,” she said. “Unlike pens and pencils, it doesn’t seem that difficult for left-handed people to use the brush with their right hand and I’ve never had students who resisted.”

Urakami is doing his bit to explain the everyday difficulties lefties go through. This includes giving lectures at schools and taking on interns from elementary school to university age.

But he’s not alone.

Design Barcode Inc., a small Tokyo company that specializes in making artistic barcodes, has coined the term “lefteous,” a play on “righteous,” to promote the lefties’ plight.

President Kazuya Muto said it has asked restaurants in the Tokyo area since 2006 to place their chopsticks with the thicker side pointing to the left each year on Aug. 13 to demonstrate what left-handed people feel on a daily basis when they eat out.

“It all started when our company’s first president, who happened to be left-handed, casually complained about the way chopsticks are placed at restaurants and flipped his over,” Muto said. “That was refreshing. We thought we should do something to highlight this minority but not in a negative way. We wanted people to experience and discover what left-handers are going through.”

In addition to the annual chopsticks campaign, Design Barcode plans different events each year. One time it produced a retort curry pouch that had a photo of the dish with the spoon on the left.

“There’s nothing special about the curry itself, but the spoon on the package is on the left side whereas most other products with a similar package have the spoon on the right,” Muto said.

For this year’s lefty day, Verve Coffee Roasters’ store in the Omotesando district will promote “lefteous cappuccinos” topped with latte art that appears upside down when the cup is placed with the handle on the right.

“We want to show differences in an entertaining way and have people understand that what is right to some people may not be so for others,” Muto said.

Left-handers speak out

The following is a selection of comments that left-handed people who replied to The Japan Times survey had about their experiences.

My parents couldn’t get my left-handed elder brother to use his right hand so they didn’t even try with me, but my shodo teacher told me not to use my right hand only when writing Japanese calligraphy because some strokes don’t look right unless written with the right hand.

Japanese


As Muslims, it is proper to do things such as eating using the right hand. When I was young, I had some difficulties using a spoon with my right hand. Now although I can use a spoon with my right hand, most of the time I naturally pick it up with my left hand.

Malaysian


Between the ages of 4 and 7, my grandmother told me to hold chopsticks with my right hand because she believed it was awkward and bad manners to use the left hand during meals. She gave up in the end because I could not use chopsticks with my right hand well and took extra time for dinner.

Japanese


I’ve been asked to change my handedness when working with tools (chainsaws and weed trimmers) and when I started studying kendo. Adjustment to power tools was easier, but I was very upset at first that there is no left-handed kendo. When I understood how important uniform handedness was for kendo practice, I adjusted and now can’t believe that I would have preferred my left hand over my right.

American


After I entered elementary school, my parents and teachers told me to write with my right hand, probably to make it easier for me to do calligraphy with my right hand later on. But it took me forever to write so I naturally started using my left hand. My handwriting with my right hand was so bad that my teachers and parents gave up.

Japanese


Scissors and can opener! They are absolutely lefty unfriendly. Almost cut myself once by a can opener because I had a hard time securing it in my left hand. Tragic ???? This happened to my fiancé as well, who is also a lefty. We go through the hardship and woes of a lefty together.

Singaporean


I was very young when my mother worked on changing my left-handedness, but I do remember the sense of freedom and guilt when I drew pictures with my left hand at kindergarten or when she wasn’t looking. Although I’m used to it, I have always thought the entrance/exit of stations where you place IC cards or put your tickets are made for right-handed people. Also, the controllers for computer games are made for right-handed people, which was a reason I didn’t like them.

Japanese


Some of the Myanmar words/numbers are mirror versions of one another. For example, the number “three” and “four.” The number “one” is also a mirror version of one of the Myanmar alphabet. When I was in kindergarten, my mom used to cane me to switch my writing to using my right hand. That was painful. It also caused me some confusion during the process. For a while, my writing for some of the numbers and letter were messed up. After some time, I eventually got used to writing with my right hand. That was when my parents read an article and realized that they shouldn’t have forced me. I’m totally right-handed now. But I still wipe table or wash dishes with my left hand. Sometimes I wonder if that change of using my hands also suppressed some of my creativity. Just saying.

Myanmarese


In Japan, there is a strong spirit of not causing annoyance upon others. However, since Japan is such a small country, it is difficult especially in the case of restaurants. Often, I tend to bump elbows with those around me whilst using chopsticks, so I try to sit on the left-hand sides. However since there is the culture of ‘Kamiza Shimoza’ (seats of honor), it might be hard to country to live in as a left-handed person.

Japanese


When I was a child I would be hit if I used chopsticks with my left hand. Nowadays, ticket gates and ticket vending machines are difficult to use. Also, it is difficult to find scissors and corkscrew for left-handed people.

Japanese


Throughout my youth, I never experienced any major issues with being left-handed. My grandfather’s experience was quite the opposite. He grew up in Alabama during the 1940s, where religious zealots were the norm. Writing with your left hand was considered as an affront to God, and he was slapped with rulers any time he tried writing with it. He eventually became very skilled with both hands. He eventually started an advertising company, and I remember seeing him working at his drafting tables, pencils in each hand.

American


When I was in nursery school, my principal forced me to use my left hand. But recently, on television I see stars that are proudly using their left hands. It saddens me that I was forced (to change) when I was young.

Japanese


Growing up in Mexico, I was forced to change my handedness as teachers would smack my hands with rulers and pinch me when I refused to write with my right hand. My family grew concerned, so they would tie my left hand behind my back and had me practice with the opposite hand. I understood that they were just trying to help me, so I gave in and practiced being right-handed as much as I could until it stuck. Incidentally, the Spanish words diestra (right) and siniestra (left) are very telling of why lefties are discouraged in some cultures and religions. The root word for left is “sin,” as in sinister, or evil.

Mexican-American


Attending a Japanese school in London, I was told to try and write with my right hand. A close family friend also told me to practice eating with my chopsticks in my right hand as chopsticks are placed in a right-handed position in restaurants. I did not succeed in using my right hand for any situations.

Japanese born, raised in Britain


In Japan (where I have been living for 20+ years) I started studying chado (the way of tea). Chado requires that I use my right hand for any number of procedures. There is one procedure where I have to handle burning charcoal with special chopsticks with my right hand. I’m thinking of declining that particular procedure in the future since there is so little margin for error.

American


Besides having a hard time finding left-handed golf clubs, I was a longtime baseball player in the U.S. and Japan. Because of a lack of space, the right field of the University of Hawaii intramural league where I would hit home runs (and batted over .550 for the season) was ruled a ground-rule double. At the college in Osaka where I was a professor and still teach, it was prohibited to hit the ball out of the park beyond right field where there were residential buildings. So I sometimes batted right-handed. When I did bang a line drive off a distant building, an administrator threatened me with punishment.

American


When I was a kid they still tried to force children to become right-handed at school, but that ended up making me write all my letters mirrored. They eventually gave up. What did work, however, was forcing me to use scissors with my right hand. Left-handed scissors are usually expensive and not always of optimal quality, so I am happy about that. I can’t use fountain pens, or any kind of pen where the ink doesn’t dry right away, or my hand will get covered in ink as I move it left to right (not to mention that whatever it is I am trying to write will be unreadable). Many school desks, especially in elementary school and then in college, were meant for right-handed people and I could not rest my arm on it while writing. One funny thing I noticed: I find myself using my right hand when writing on a vertical surface such as a whiteboard. I have no idea why that happens, and I am completely unable to use my right hand to write on paper. Who knows?

French


I was never forced to be right handed despite starting school in 1951! The most common tool I find difficult to use are scissors, but luckily my partner Janet is also left handed, so we are fully equipped with left handed versions of common tools at home. I would not say I find much difficult, but it is obvious that certain things designed by and for right-handed people e.g. door handles! Also when we go to a restaurant the first job is to re-arrange the cutlery, glasses etc. to suit our left-handedness.

British


I was a competitive figure skater and was taught to skate right-handed instead of left-handed (jumping and spinning counterclockwise instead of clockwise.)

American


Romania is a very religious and superstitious country. I was forced to correct my handedness because left-handedness is a sign of the devil. Before my time it was normal to correct this at school by teachers who would abuse left-handed children into changing their handedness. For me, it did not work. I do find spiral notebooks hard to use since the spiral gets in the way of my left hand other and scissors. I have not come across other items that inconvenience me.

Romanian