Why Does Japan Drive On The Left?

Driving is a necessary part of our everyday lives. We need to get ourselves from A to B, and while public transportation such as trains can be very useful, sometimes they just don’t get us where we need to go.

Why Does Japan Drive On The Left

As a result – we’ll need to drive, and each country has their own side to drive on. Japan’s side is on the left, but why?

This guide will tell you and give you other helpful pieces of information you may need to know!

Read on for more.

The Basics

Most countries in the world drive their cars on the right hand side of the road, in fact with only 35% driving on the opposite side.

Those that do drive on the left are normally a result of British imposition, usually from historical imperialism – but that should not apply to Japan. So, what’s the deal?

Well, there are a few reasons, so let’s take a look at them more closely.

A Samurai History

samurai history

Japan is rich in history and culture and it often plays a role in what they do today. Driving is no exception to this.

Back before the days of motorized transportation, there was a tradition that came into being – established in the Edo period (17th to 19th century).

The people in Japan would walk on the left hand side of the roads and paths because of their swords being located on the left.

As a result of this, if a samurai was to draw their sword, it would be with their right hand, making them more prepared to defend themselves against a passing samurai on the opposite side, if necessary.

Additionally, it meant that their swords would not be in danger of hitting people passing others or another person stealing it.

Because this is what the samurais did, the rest of the Japanese people followed. Not only was this a mark of respect, but a way to stay out of their way as they passed them.

This idea may not necessarily be isolated to Japan and Japanese history though. Many historians believe that other nations did the same thing if they had people that carried swords.

However, over the years – many nations slowly moved to right hand traffic. Historians believe that horses as a method of transportation played a role in this.

This is because you’d normally mount a horse from the left and lead them from the left, with the reins being in your right hand.

This made much more spacial sense to have right hand traffic and to keep other animals away from one another.

But Japan remained to the left and whilst samurai influence played a role, it can’t have been the sole reason. So, let’s look at how the British may have contributed to this.

British Contribution

Whilst remaining on the left in Japan for the roads was never a cemented law, it was followed as an unwritten rule.

However, official ruling to the left came after Japan developed its railways, and this ruling appeared in the early 20th century.

Japanese railways were not completed entirely by themselves. The USA, France and Britain offered to assist with their expertise.

By the mid-late 19th century, Scottish merchant Thomas Glover introduced the steam engine locomotive to Japan.

While the Japanese could see the huge benefits that the locomotive could provide, they had spent over 200 years being almost entirely self-sufficient and independent – meaning they were very apprehensive of outsiders.

After some time, they decided that while they were not going to allow the British to come to Japan and build their transportation system, they were happy for the British to fund it and invited a number of specialist advisors.

The advisors were not happily met either. Their job was to educate the Japanese engineers and then leave the country.

This worked well and led to the first railway being finished between Yokohama and Shimbashi.

This eventually led to many more railways being completed by the Japanese on their own and the trains were always on the left hand side.

Naturally, this moved onto cars and then in 1924 – the rule became official for traffic to be on the left, regardless of what type of land transportation this was.

Has Japanese Traffic Always Been On The Left?

Why Does Japan Drive On The Left

Not necessarily but this was due to the American influence from the 1950s to the 1970s and this was isolated to Okinawa.

The Americans were in the governing body at the time through the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands.

However, after 1972 when the American governance ceased in the area, Okinawa reverted back to left handed traffic laws, joining the rest of the country.

Why Do The British Drive On The Left?

As we can place British influence on most countries that drive on the left, why is it that the British drive on the left in the first place?

Historians cite a number of theories that have archeological evidence and other historical pieces of information.

As we said with samurai history, one reason was for their swords. However, it seems that the Romans had a lot of influence on this too.

The Romans seemed to have always marched on the left of their roads and rode their transportation on the left, which was cemented further during the 14th century.

The Pope decreed in the “rule of the road” that anyone heading to Rome for pilgrimage must always walk to the left.

Much later, in the 19th century, Britain introduced the left hand side rule into the Highway Act to reduce congestion and collisions in London.

The Bottom Line

There are two main reasons why Japan drives on the left (see also ‘How Old Do You Have To Be To Drive In Japan?‘). One goes back to the history of Samurais, and the other which is much like many other countries – boils down to British influence.

Aura Ruggeri
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