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 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.
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 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.”
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.