Tokyo >> 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 been changing.
“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 Sa- gamihara, 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 of lefties conducted by The Japan Times, 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.
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.”
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.
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 Naka- gawa 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 shodo (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 write, 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.”
LEFT-HANDERS SPEAK OUT
A selection of comments that left-handed people who replied to a The Japan Times survey 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.
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.
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.
When I was in nursery school, my principal forced me to use my right 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.
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.
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 live in a country as a left-handed person.
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 corkscrews for left-handed people.
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.
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.
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.