The majority of the world drives on the right side of the road, with only 35% of the world driving on the left. Japan is within that 35%. So, if you are planning on visiting Japan, chances are you need to be prepared to drive in an unfamiliar way.
Now, you may be wondering why this is the case. Why exactly does Japan drive on the left? In this article, we will be detailing exactly why Japan drives on the left (see also ‘How Old Do You Have To Be To Drive In Japan?‘), the reason may surprise you!
So, if this is of interest to you, then click here for more!
Why Does Japan Drive On The Left?
The reason Japan drives on the left is all to do with its historical association with the British, despite Japan never being part of the British empire. However, it isn’t just because of its associations with the UK. The other reasons Japan drives on the left have to do with the Samurai.
Let’s check out the reasons behind left-side driving in Japan in more detail.
The end of the Edo period saw the rise of the Meiji period, from 1868 to 1912. During this time, the nation felt that there was no longer a need for swordsmen. However, there was a need for a train network.
While Japan was trying to establish its train network, many other countries offered to help, such as the US, France, and the UK. However, Japan decided to accept help from the UK because of the strong relationships between the two countries.
So, in 1872 Japan’s train system was finished with everything kept to the left, thanks to the influence of the British.
The United Kingdom’s Left Lane Culture
There are around fifty countries around the globe where right handles are the most common, Japan and Britain being some of them.
There is a reason that the UK drives on the left side of the road! It all dates back to when many of the British people used a horse and carriage to get around.
Drivers would whip horses while driving the carriage, and since most people are right-handed, they would hold the whips in their right hand. This was also to protect the passengers in the cart. Therefore, they started driving on the left side of the road.
Thanks to this culture of the horse and carriage, when cars came into existence the steering wheel was always built onto the right side, while the gear stick was always built onto the left.
This became widespread across Europe with the exception of Germany, which realized that it was easier to use the gear stick with your right hand, as opposed to your left. Following Germany, most of Europe now has gear sticks on the left side of their drivers, but Britain remains unchanged.
So, as previously mentioned, Japan was influenced by this transportation system of the British, which is part of the reason for their left-lane driving. However, there is also another reason as to why this is the case.
The Samurai are another reason why Japan drives on the left. There were many strict rules as to what side of the road pedestrians should walk on during the Edo period, 1603-1868.
Pedestrians were only permitted to walk on the left side of the road, and the reasons for this date all the way back to the Samurai.
The cities of Japan were home to many narrow footpaths. In this time period, the samurai would wear their swords on the left side of their body so they could access them easily with their right hand because their right hands were usually stronger.
So, if two samurai were crossing paths while walking on the right of a footpath, then their swords would have brushed and this could have caused an injury at worst or an inconvenience at best.
Therefore, it made much more sense for both samurai to stick to their left side. That tradition still continues even today when it comes to driving!
The Exception Of Okinawa
Despite Japan driving on the left side of the road, there was once an exception. After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, Okinawa came under the rule of the Americans.
Because of this, the rules of the island changed and those who lived there had to drive on the right side of the road.
Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1978, and the rule of driving on the left side of the road was implemented once more!
Advice For Renting A Car In Japan
If you have an international license and want to drive around Japan, then please do so! However, please be aware that traffic incidents involving tourists are increasing. Most of the time, this is because of a misunderstanding of the road signals in Japan.
So, please be aware that if you do want to drive as a tourist in Japan, some rental car places will ask you to place a notice on your car to let drivers around you know that the vehicle is being driven by a foreign tourist.
This will help to prevent accidents and injuries on the road.
Unlike the majority of the world, Japan drives on the left side of the road. This is primarily due to the British influence on their train transportation system and the Samurai. The British drive on the left side of the road thanks to their history of horses and carriages.
Japan and the UK have a great relationship, so the British helped influence the building of their railway system, and consequently, everything regarding the railway was kept to the left.
Additionally, the Samurai would draw their swords with their right hand, which meant they were worn on their left side, and this led to clashes and injuries from other samurai after trying to cross the narrow footpaths.
So, everyone walked on the left side, which influenced driving in Japan, and this rule is still implemented today!