When it comes to driving, every country has its unique set of rules and practices, deeply rooted in its history and culture. For visitors to Japan, one of the first and most striking differences they notice is the side of the road on which the Japanese drive.
In Japan, like in some other countries around the globe, vehicles navigate on the left side of the road (with the steering wheel on the right hand side of the car)
This practice, often surprising to those hailing from countries with right-hand traffic, has a rich historical background and reasons rooted in Japan’s unique cultural and historical journey.
Table of Contents
The origin of left-side driving in Japan can be traced back to the Edo period (1603–1868). This era, characterized by the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, saw a society structured around the samurai class. Samurai, who typically carried their katana (swords) on their left hip, found it more convenient to walk on the left side of the path. This positioning allowed them to easily draw their swords in case of a conflict, as most people are right-handed. This early custom laid the foundation for left-side traffic in Japan.
During the late 19th century, as Japan opened up to Western influences during the Meiji Restoration, there was a mix of left and right-hand traffic, depending on the region and types of vehicles. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that a nationwide standard was established.
20th Century and Standardization
The pivotal moment came with the introduction of the trolley system in the early 20th century. Cities like Kyoto and Tokyo adopted the left-hand traffic system for their trams, influencing the traffic flow around them. The decisive factor, however, was Japan’s railway system, which was built by British engineers and thus followed the left-hand traffic convention.
In 1924, a formal rule for left-hand traffic on roads was established, but it wasn’t uniformly followed until after World War II. The U.S. occupation forces initially considered switching Japan to right-hand traffic but eventually decided against it due to the immense cost and disruption it would cause.
Modern Times and Cultural Significance
Today, left-side driving is an integral part of Japan’s road culture. It’s reflected in the design of their vehicles, road infrastructure, and even in pedestrian behavior. Japanese car manufacturers design vehicles with the driver’s seat on the right, optimizing visibility and control for left-side driving. As a consequence of this, all genuine JDM cars are right hand drive.
This driving orientation also influences pedestrian traffic. In crowded Japanese cities, people generally walk on the left side of pathways and escalators, maintaining a consistent flow with the road traffic.
Conclusion – What Side Of The Road Do They Drive On In Japan?
Japan’s adherence to left-side driving is more than just a traffic rule; it’s a window into the country’s history and cultural evolution. From the samurai era to the influence of British railway engineers, this aspect of Japanese road culture is a fascinating blend of historical legacy and modern functionality. For visitors, understanding this aspect of Japan offers a deeper appreciation of how history shapes the seemingly mundane aspects of daily life in different cultures.
Driving on the left side of the road in Japan is a testament to the country’s unique blend of tradition and modernity, an enduring practice that continues to guide the flow of life in this dynamic and historically rich nation.