Keen history students will be aware of the fact that Japan was never part of the British Empire. Former British colonies and territories are typically where people drive on the left hand side of the road.
But why does Japan drive on the left?
After all, the country’s modern history has been much more influenced by the United States (where people drive on the right) than by the United Kingdom.
If you look at a map where countries drive on the left (with the steering wheel on the right side of the car) it’s basically a ‘who’s who’ of former British colonies and territories.
So how did Japan wind up joining this exclusive club, if it was never really a member to begin with?
In this edition of Car Facts we’ll explore why Japan drives on the left-hand side of the road.
Here at Garage Dreams, we are enthusiastic about Japanese cars and ‘JDM‘ car culture (not to mention one of our editors lived in Japan and travels there regularly). Part of the objective of this website is to bring to light the interesting history of the Japanese motoring industry and car culture scene, so it makes sense to look at why Japan drives the way it does!
Let’s start by going back many hundreds of years, to before the motorcar had even been invented.
Samurai Culture Played An Important Role
One reason given for Japan’s driving on the left is due to the way that Samurai (who occupied an important place in the social hierarchy) would wear their swords, which in turn resulted in foot and horse traffic in Japan’s Edo period already moving on the left.
Samurai wore their swords pointing to the left, allowing for the typically-dominant right hand to have easier access to the sword in case it was needed.
This simple diagram (source:) illustrates why right handed sword wearing would have been an issue on the narrow streets and paths of Japan.
Basically, with left-pointing swords, if you walked or rode your horse on the right, then on narrower paths swords could clash.
By encouraging horse-mounted “traffic” to stick to the left hand side of the road, this reduced the risk of collision.
There is historical reference to this practice from hundreds of years prior to the development of the motor car.
Engelbert Kaempfer, a German explorer, wrote in the late 1600s in his ‘The History of Japan‘ that there were well-established customs and rules with respect to travelling on the left side of the road. For example, visitors going to Tokyo travelled on the left, and away on the right. If you’ve got some time to kill, you can read his full tome here – it’s a fascinating account of a European explorer’s experience of Japan.
Kaempfer’s experience was reinforced in writing by Carl Peter Thunberg of Sweden, who noted in his Edo Travel Accompaniment that highway users in Japan on both horse and foot diligently obeyed the keep-left rules of the era.
Not only did riders travel on horseback on the left – pedestrians walked on the left as well.
Trains & Carriages Lead The Way
By the Meiji period, (mid 1800s) Japanese society was less dominated by the ways of the Samurai, and carrying your sword around in public was less of a “done thing”. Probably for the best, to be honest.
However, it was around this time that relations between Japan and Great Britain deepened.
By the mid/late 1800s, Britain had developed a sophisticated train network, and Japan wanted to leverage this experience in the development of their own rail and transport networks. This included the development of horse-drawn trams and tram cars, as well as proper railway transport where tracks run on the left.
Both the United States and France had also been approached to tender their railway and transport expertise, but Britain’s model won in the end.
Through this influence, Japan inherited Britain’s approach to transporting on the left.
Allow much of the rail network was single track, everything was structured so passengers would enter and alight on the left side of the trains.
It was – however – the development of trams (which had been influenced by the direction of travel of the train network) that fully cemented Japan’s left-driving future.
Over time, roads were built up to accomodate left-hand driving trams (although these days – as in many other countries – it’s more common for trams to travel up the middle of the road). This network grew substantially over time, making any future attempt to change more challenging.
This then filtered through to buses – which came to supersede trams in many instances – where doors were configured to allow passengers to alight on the left.
Finally, this meant that efficient operation of motor cars necessitated them to drive on the left (with the steering wheel on the right).
To quote Michael Scott, “how the turn tables”, as now most of us would think of Japan as being miles ahead of Britain in terms of train technology (not to mention reliability of service) but it is owing to the British influence, as opposed to French or American, that the foundations were laid for Japan to travel on the left.
Attempts Were Made To Change – But Ultimately Did Not Succeed
As you’ll no doubt be aware, following World War 2, there has been substantial American influence on Japan and its culture and customs.
Following the war, the Allied command (led by the United States) that was present in Japan attempted to change the driving side of the road to the right.
However, Japan pushed back, explaining that to change over to driving on the right would involve a substantial amount of expenditure and work – remember that by this point all trains, trams, busses and cars were built to travel on the left.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In some provinces and areas there have variously been experiments with traveling on the right, but ultimately the left side won out.
Recap – Why Does Japan Drive On The Left Hand Side Of The Road?
For us here in New Zealand (where Garage Dreams is based) this is one of the reasons why used Japanese imports are in abundance on the roads – we drive on the same side of the road as the Japanese.
This means that ‘everyday’ commuter cars are cheaper for consumers here, but it also means that desirable JDM hero cars (learn more here about what JDM means) are available more easily than in the United States, for example. We don’t have to worry about the steering wheel being on the wrong side of the road! You might also like to learn more about why JDM cars are illegal in the United States for more information.
But to recap, why do the Japanese drive on the left?
Basically, it’s all a question of history.
From well before the advent of the car, Japan was structured to encourage traffic to travel on the left hand side of the path/road. This was then reinforced by British influence in the 19th Century that led to the development of Japan’s rail and tram network.
Although American influence was extremely strong on Japan following WW2, by this time Japan was so ensconced in the ways of traveling on the left that it would have been too costly and impractical to change.
Changing the direction of travel isn’t necessarily the easiest process. If you ever watched the old Top Gear Burma special, you might recall the scene in which Jeremy Clarkson talks about Burma (now Myanmar) changing the side of the road in 1970 under the direction of then-dictator General Ne Win. There is no official reason as to why Ne Win issued this decree, but theories abound as to the influence of his astrologers and dreams commanding him to make such a change.
Because the country – being a former British territory – had traditionally driven on the left, vehicles were configured in this manner. This change in direction of travel caused particular challenges for bus passengers, as they had to get out into the flow of traffic. This video shows the sudden change in the direction of traffic crossing from India (which, of course, drives on the left, into Myanmar which drives on the right)
Japan, thankfully, had the foresight not to bother with such a change!
You need to bear in mind that Japan has historically been a rather ‘inwards-looking’ country, content to do things its own way. Although most of the rest of the world drives on the right – including Japan’s close neighbours – the consensus view in Japan was that driving on the left is good enough and works well, and so there was no need to change even when some pressure was applied.
Japanese car manufacturers are more than happy to build cars in right drive configurations – both in their own factories and in overseas plants – so there is no great business cost to the country either.
We hope you found this edition of Car Facts interesting. Please leave a comment below if you have any queries or corrections. You can support this website by letting your friends and family know about us!