Why Does Japan Drive on the Left Side of the Road?

Japanese bus | © Hans Johnson/ Flickr
Japanese bus | © Hans Johnson/ Flickr
Photo of Lucy Dayman
10 September 2018

While a majority of the world drives on the right-hand side of the road, 35% of countries prefer the left. The reason is most commonly due to the nation’s historical association with the British. However Japan was never a part of the British Empire, so why drive on the left? Well, it actually has a lot to do with samurais and trains.

The samurai influence

During the Edo period of Japan (1603 and 1868), before cars were even invented, the country had already established a number of strictly followed rules regarding which side of the road pedestrians could walk on, and as you may have guessed it was the left. Though it seems like an arbitrary rule in a world where getting around by foot meant that dodging cars and buses were not a problem, there was a purpose behind it, and it goes all the way back to the samurai.

Many of the footpaths weaving through the cities were narrow. During this time most samurai wore their swords on their left hand side, providing easy access to their weapons with their typically stronger right hand. The combination of these two factors meant that if samurai swordsmen were to cross paths walking on the right-hand side of the footpath their swords would have crossed over and potentially bumped into each other causing inconvenience or injury. It simply made sense to both sick to the left side. From the samurai era to today’s Shinkansen, it’s clear the Japanese have had the art of transport perfected for a long time.

The railway

Moving on now to the country’s famous train network, its creation also has a lot to do with the way the country gets around today. Following the end of the Edo era and the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912) the nation found no more need for swordsmen, but they did need a train network.

In the mid-to-late 1800s, the country started looking at how they could establish an effective train network to carry produce and passengers throughout the country. France, the US and Great Britain all offered their assistance in the project, but given the bourgeoning friendship the country had with Great Britain, Japan decided to go with them.

By 1872 Japan had a functioning train system thanks to the help and engineering advice from the British, which included the tip to keep everything on the left. Because Japan loves their train network so much, and because it’s the main mode of transport for many Japanese today, some argue that had the initial network been implemented with the help of the US it’s feasible that Japan’s cars would be driving around on the right side today too!

Okinawa exception

Following Japan’s defeat during World War II, the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa came under American rule, which meant that the island was required to drive on the right. In 1978 once the area was returned to Japan, the drivers also returned to the left side of the road.

It looks like on the whole driving on the left has treated Japan pretty well. Thanks to advanced automobile technology, high-quality road conditions and efficient, well connected public transport, the number of road deaths in Japan fell below 4,000 in 2016, the first time in 67 years! In fact these days more people die from choking on food in Japan than they do from car accidents.

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