Why does Japan drive on the left side of the road?

About 65% of the population drives on the right-hand side of the road, while the other 35% drives on the left side. And what’s more, around 90% of the total length of roads that exist on this Earth are used for right-hand traffic! So basically, most people drive on the right side of the road. Yet, Japan (along with countries such as the UK, Australia, Thailand, Suriname…) drives on the left-hand side of the road. Why is that? Let’s find out.

Red: right-hand side driving; Blue: left-hand side driving

When did it start?

Engelbert Kaempfer

We have reason to believe that this principle of left-side circulation dates back, at least, to the start of the 18th century, during the Edo period thanks to German naturalist and physician Engelbert Kaempfer.

He wrote a book called History of Japan depicting his travels in Japan toward the end of the 17th century. This book was a huge deal back in the day as it was one of the rare sources of information about Japan, given that the country was still closed to foreigners. 

Within his descriptions of the country in the book, he stated that « Japanese roads were hygienically preserved, signs were installed to indicate directions, and left-hand traffic was thoroughly integrated ». Thanks to this, we can assume that left-hand traffic was common during the Edo era.

Theories

Although we cannot claim to know for sure why left-hand traffic was implemented, a few theories arose :

Swords and handedness

One of the most prominent theories regarding traffic during the Edo era and most probably even before then has to do with soldiers and swords.

It is common knowledge that most people in the world are right-handed. Some studies seem to suggest that around 90% of the world population is right-handed. Naturally, even though populations evolve over time, we can assume that most warriors during the Middle Ages (and the times that followed) were right-handed as well. Therefore, in order to make efficient use of their swords with their right arm, they would sheathe their swords over their left hip and the sword would be dangling over to their left side.

Bushi (武士) with katana (刀) attached to his left

Now, let’s imagine a situation where a soldier has their sword hanging to their left, as mentioned above, and is walking around town on the right-hand side of the road. Then, another warrior, also walking on the right side of the road with a sword attached to their left hip, is coming down the street toward our first soldier.

None of them slows their pace… They’re both walking steadily toward each other, each on the right-hand side of the road… And then suddenly, just as they’re about to pass each other, their swords collide and produce a metallic sound resonating throughout the streets. Tension rises between the two warriors… They now look in each other’s eyes with fury… And that’s how the Street Fighter saga came to be.

So yeah, if soldiers were to walk down the streets on the right side of the road, while keeping their swords to their left because of the fact that they were right-handed, it would only raise the probability of swords meeting when warriors would pass each other and conflicts would probably ensue.

Therefore, we can assume that the population naturally followed a left side traffic so as to avoid such conflicts.

Note that this theory also applies to other countries in the world, even some that today drive on the right side of the road. Such countries might have been using the left side of the road before switching to the right side.

I believe that it is also important to note that this theory, although pretty convincing, is part of many theories based on handedness that have appeared to explain left- or right-hand traffic and may be associated to myths. Nonetheless, I still find it interesting and worth sharing.

Railroads and the UK

Another theory, this time more focused on modern Japanese traffic, seems more appropriate when studying the origin of left-hand side driving in Japan. This one involves railroads and of course, the only country in the world that decided to spread left side driving: the UK.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Japan started building railroads throughout the country. But this wasn’t without help from a certain country that happened to have its fair share of knowledge in this specific field: the United Kingdom. Actually, the UK wasn’t the only country that wished to partake in Japan’s railroads’ construction, the United States and France also approached the Japanese government, nevertheless, the UK was the one they stuck with.

In 1872, with technical help from the British, Japan’s first railroad saw the light of day, and as they followed the British model, naturally, traffic was on the left-hand side. Throughout the years, railroads and tram tracks were built across Japan following a left-hand traffic model. These tram tracks were what brought left-hand traffic to public transportation as they replaced carriages.

This model gradually became standardized and made official soon after the car’s introduction to the world in the 1900s: in 1924, left-hand traffic was officially instated through a mandate.

And now Japan drives on the left (wrong) side of the road.

Did you ever experience driving on the other side of the road? Which side do you think is the right one? (hint: the answer is in the question)

8 Replies to “Why does Japan drive on the left side of the road?”

  1. I really like this post! Well done!

    I think the best side of the road is the right side even though I’ve never been to a country where you drive on the left side of the road!

  2. It strikes me as unusual that the Japanese drive on the LHS especially given that they were occupied by the Americans at the end of WW11. I would have thought that the American administration would have insisted that drivers utilise the LHS but apparently not. (I’m an Aussie and so am used to driving on the LHS.)

    1. Hello, thank you for your comment!

      Actually, according to this article, the prefecture of Okinawa did switch to right-hand side driving during the occupation and would keep using RHS up until 1978.
      From what I gather however, it would seem that switching all traffic on all Japanese islands (where, despite Allied Forces occupation, traffic was mostly Japanese) to RHS would not be a high priority task and would serve little to no interest to the Americans compared to, for instance, social and economic reforms.

      Cheers.

  3. Thank you, this was helpful, I’m watching the Paraolympics and noticed that Japan drive on the left. Being an Aussie this is normal for me so I was curious about the origins as ours of course come from being a British colony. I have driven around the USA and Canada in my younger years (all the way around) and found having to remember to do things the other way around quite a challenge. In France we chose to use public transport, but I still nearly got skittled by cyclists as I kept looking right first before crossing the street. 🙂

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment, I’m glad this post helped you!

      Having to think the other way around when traveling must be quite a hurdle indeed, haha!

      Have a good day!

  4. Consider why the UK and Ireland drive LHS and continental Europe RHS. The reason goes back to the days of horse driven coaches. In Britain and Ireland the driver sat on the front of the coach. He tended to be right handed so held his whip in his right hand and reins in his left. To use the whip he would sit on the right side of the coach so he could crack it without hitting the coach as he swung it backwards. And to better see approaching traffic he drove on the LHS of the road. In continental Europe a right handed coach driver sat on the left leading horse of a set of two, four or eight (not on the coach itself). Thus he could control the other leading horse with his stronger arm. Again, to see oncoming traffic he drove on the RHS. As a footnote, Sweden drove on the LHS until 3 September 1967. They changed to RHS because all their neighbours drove on the RHS and 90% of the cars in Sweden were already LHS.

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