J-TOWN BEAT: Being a JA Left-Hander



(Published Aug. 15, 2015)


I often heard that when I lived in Tokyo and met a Japanese person for the first time at a dinner or lunch or a nomikai (drinking party).

It seems like the term “southpaw,” a word used in baseball or boxing, was something that was taught in eikaiwa language classes. Since baseball is essentially Japan’s national sport, terms such as “home run,” “no-hitter” and “southpaw” are widely understood.

Here in the States, I’ve never been called southpaw, but like other lefties, I’ve gotten used to navigating life in a right-handed society. As a kid, it took me a long time to figure out how to tie my shoes (basically I was learning it in reverse), and I was always envious of the right-handed kids who got to use the really good scissors, instead of the one beat-up pair of dull lefty scissors every class would have. Eventually I just learned how to use right-handed scissors and that’s my preference to this day.

My husband Eric knows that when we go out to a restaurant, I try to sit in a corner, so I’m not bumping elbows with the rightie next to me. Unless that rightie is Eric … then he puts up with me.

Since this past Thursday was Left-Handers Day, I’m curious if there are any other JA lefties out there who would share their experiences. Specifically, are any readers formerly left-handed, but were changed during childhood?

Generally 10 percent of any given population is born left-handed, but according to one study the numbers in Japan are much smaller, indicating that many of those who were born lefties were changed.

Lefties are used to the cultural and social biases against us. Words such as “sinister” or a “left-handed compliment” reflect negative attitudes towards left-handedness.

The Japanese language has similar negative connotations. Hidarimaki 左巻き or counterclockwise also can mean eccentric or abnormal.

Thankfully, my parents never tried to convert me, but I did experience anti-left discrimination in the Japanese community. I ended up quitting Japanese calligraphy when I was a kid because the teacher kept trying to force me to use my right hand. It was frustrating. The sensei would praise other students by drawing graceful looping orange circles of ink on their efforts. But my calligraphy was never good enough because I was working with the wrong hand.

So many disciplines in Japanese culture stress the importance of proper form or kata — it imbues even the smallest gesture or an intake of breath with meaning and an aesthetic beauty. There is also a rigidity to this type of discipline. Anything that is not created with the proper form is not correct. In my case it was my handedness.

I’m sure those attitudes have changed as the years have passed. But I wonder if others had similar experiences.

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Nisei Week volunteers (front row, from right) Greg Chinn, Joyce Wakano Chinn, Linda Honda and Patti Yamashita; (back row, from right) Scott Yoshihara, Tomohiro Matsuda and Elvin Grajulos. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Nisei Week volunteers (front row, from right) Greg Chinn, Joyce Wakano Chinn, Linda Honda and Patti Yamashita; (back row, from right) Scott Yoshihara, Tomohiro Matsuda and Elvin Grajulos. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Ask Joyce. That’s usually what I’ll say if there’s some question I have about Nisei Week. This weekend, we’ll be celebrating many heroes in the Japanese American community, but if it wasn’t for volunteers like Joyce Wakano Chinn, an event as big as Nisei Week simply wouldn’t happen.

The Nikkei Women Legacy Association is honoring Joyce at a luncheon on Sept. 19 at the DoubleTree Hilton in Little Tokyo. For information about the luncheon, email [email protected] or call (424) 325-8995.

Photographer Mario Reyes and I visited Joyce and the other Nisei Week volunteers at their office in the JACCC on Wednesday. It was as busy as you would expect it would be the week before the festival. The phone was ringing, munchies were on the table and there were lists of things to do. The calm center of all the chaos is Joyce and her husband Greg Chinn.

Joyce, who taught at Vanalden Avenue Elementary in Reseda, explained that she began volunteering with Nisei Week in 1974. Now she’s teaching her tasks to a new generation of volunteers, Patti Yamashita and Vicky Nishinaka Leon, but thankfully Joyce isn’t leaving Nisei Week, just slowing down a little bit.

Another longtime behind-the-scenes volunteer who is being honored this year is Michie Sujishi, who has been working in many aspects of the festival, including dressing the young women of the Nisei Week Court in beautiful kimono for the past 50 years.

The late Nancy Kikuchi is also being honored this weekend. It’s hard to believe Nancy isn’t here wrangling all the details for this year’s Tanabata Festival, but I know she is here in spirit.

Every organization has to have people like Joyce, Michie and Nancy to keep it going strong.

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The weather this summer has certainly been strange, particularly on the weekends of major JA community events. In July, an unusual tropical downpour meant several Obon festivals were drenched for the first time, perhaps ever.

And now Nisei Week is going to be scorching with a heat wave pushing temperatures well into the 90s.

Let’s see now, Metro Regional Connector construction, traffic congestion, a serious lack of parking and now a heat wave — what a litany of challenges for Little Tokyo and Nisei Week.

Hopefully everyone stays hydrated and looks out for one another, particularly the elderly, on this first Nisei Weekend. Japanese Americans are proud of their ability to gaman and their ganbare spirit, but this is ridiculous!

Gwen Muranaka, English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.



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