Business & Economy Science & Technology Education & Society Sports & Fashion Arts & Entertainment
Top Picks Back Numbers Search

Left-Handedness Comes into Vogue

February 7, 2000

Left-handed scissors have blades that cross in the opposite direction from that of regular scissors.

Until 20 or 30 years ago, lefties in Japan had a tough life. Holding one's chopsticks with the left hand was considered to be ill manners, and many parents "corrected" a child's left-handedness, thinking that it would give a bad impression on others. In recent years the pressure on this minority has eased considerably, however, as the trait is coming to be seen in a different light.

Lefties Are Cool
Just as in the English language, where a left-handed compliment is insulting and the word sinister has a Latin root that means "left-hand," there are many Japanese words containing the kanji character for left that have derogatory meanings. When a corporate employee is transferred to a section of lower importance, this is called sasen, its kanji literally meaning "to be moved left," while hidarimaki--"winding up in the left direction (counterclockwise)"--refers to stupidity or insanity. The standard term used for left-handedness, hidari-kiki, can also denote a heavy drinker, and another colloquial term, giccho, has a discriminatory connotation. In a society full of words like these and taboos against using the left hand, southpaws could enjoy an advantage over right-handers only when playing certain sports, like baseball and tennis.

A recent survey has revealed, however, that a growing number of Japanese, especially young people, are coming to see left-handedness as a desirable trait. Approximately half of the respondents in their teens and twenties said that, at some point in their lives, they have wished they could become southpaws. They have positive images of lefties, connecting the trait with good reflexes and creativity, apparently influenced by their knowledge of accomplished athletes and artists who are left-handed. There are even those who train in using their left hand, hoping to become southpaws themselves.

Living in a Right-Handed World
Left-handers in Japan are networking through the Internet to exchange information of interest to them. The Japan Southpaw Club, launched in spring 1996, maintains a Website for this purpose. The site provides a channel for the 400 or so club members, as well as nonmembers, to seek advice on issues specific to being left-handed and share amusing experiences, and also introduces products made for left-hand use.

Some left-handed goods: The numbers on the ruler and tape measures progress from right to left, and the watch has the crown on its left side.

In September 1999 the club sponsored a sandlot baseball tournament exclusively for lefties. The direction of the baseball diamond was reversed to make it easier for infielders to throw the ball, so that the batter would run to third-base position after hitting a ball. The event was held in the hopes of making the world a more comfortable place for southpaws by demonstrating what it means to be left-handed.

Despite such efforts, so far not much has changed in Japan, where--just like everywhere else--right-handers make up most of the population. Just about every implement (unless symmetrical) is geared for right-hand use. Automatic ticket gates at train stations, vending machines, and home appliances, are all designed for easy operation with the right hand, and even pen stands at bank and post office counters are usually positioned to the right of the customer. Living from day to day in such an environment can be stressful for lefties.

Activities like those by the Japan Southpaw Club have begun making at least some difference, though: More and more goods designed for lefties are coming on the market. Left-handed scissors and can openers may appear perfectly normal at first glance, but a careful look will reveal that they are mirror images of the usual products. There are also watches with the screw on the left, bottle openers that are made to be turned counterclockwise, and folding fans that open from the right to the left.

Recently there is a growing tendency to value left-handed goods for their interesting "designs." The more these products become fashionable, and the more lefties speak out for themselves, the better the quality of life will be for the 10% or so of Japanese who are left-handed.

Some Famous Left-Handed Japanese People
Shintaro Ishihara (governor of Tokyo)
Sadaharu Oh (world lifetime record holder of 868 home runs, currently manager of Japanese pro baseball team Daiei Hawks)
Hiroshi Nanami (pro soccer player, now playing with Italy's AC Venezia)
Danjuro Ichikawa (kabuki actor)
Ryuichi Sakamoto (musician and composer)

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.