Japan’s practice of driving on the left side of the road originates back to the Edo Period when samurai would walk on the left side of the road. This was later officiated when Great Britain helped Japan build its first railway and street tram system.
Now, we all know that Japan is home to a lot of unusual things. If you are from the United States, then this might seem like one of the country’s strange quirks. But by the end of this article, you might start to realize that driving on the left may not be as strange as you initially thought.
The Roots of Left-hand Drive
First off, the technical term for this would be left-hand traffic (LHT), as opposed to right-hand traffic (RHT). If you found the LHT scheme in Japan out of the ordinary, then you’ll probably also be shocked to know that over one-third of all countries actually adhere to this system. It can get quite confusing because LHT would mean that the steering wheel would be on the right side, while RHT would mean that the wheel would be on the left. This is because the orientation refers to the side of the road the driver drives in.
If you aren’t baffled enough at this point, note that everyone actually used to drive on the left side in the very beginning when the first automobiles were invented.
The roots of left-hand traffic can be traced way back to the Edo period (1603 – 1868), a time long before the dawn of the gasoline-fueled cars. I want you to picture yourself as a Samurai, complete with a sword and sheath. Bear in mind that people were mostly right-handed, as we are today, and so if you were to draw your sword, you would need to position your scabbard or sheath on your left side to be able to do it comfortably and not cut yourself in the process.
As a Samurai with real Samurai problems, it would also be practical for you to stay on the left side so that you’re able to protect yourself with your dominant hand (presumably your right one) from any potential threats and also to keep your sheath from bumping into another passing Samurai’s and starting battles or duels that are uncalled for.
Walkways were also pretty narrow during this time and are nothing like the wide asphalt roads that we have today. This means that the chances of people (literally) bumping into each other was quite high, and if you hit someone with a sword on a bad day, then you could end up with much more than just a bruise!
Following this train of thought, it would make the most sense to get onto a horse from the left side for two reasons: first, your scabbard would get in the way if you get on the right side and that could be bothersome or even possibly dangerous. Secondly, you would be causing a lot of traffic and disruption because the right side would leave you at the mercy of incoming traffic in the middle of the road.
Even on the other side of the world, where horse transportation with handheld weapons was equally widespread, people would ride in the same manner so that they could hold the reins and control the horse with their left hand while leaving their right hand free in case of either friendly or not-so-friendly interactions with fellow riders. Given these circumstances, this manner of doing things appeared to be the most practical choice and this came to be the unspoken rule of getting around on one’s horse or on foot.
The Evolution of Left-hand
People realized that they could work more efficiently if they had more than one horse and soon enough, multi-horse transportation took off. The first wagons were very basic and didn’t really have designated seats or anything fancy, but the drivers just naturally leaned towards the side that came natural to them.
During that time, they had to whip the horses to keep them in line and most people would have to stay on the right side to do so. Things got a bit complicated when wagons were told to drive on the right side of the road so that they could clearly see how far the wagons beside them were and avoid bumping into them. But this setup meant that they would have to move to the left side, which was unnatural to them and get in and out of their wagons from the middle of the road.
This was pretty much how things were everywhere until the French Revolution happened and turned a lot of time-honored (Western) traditions on their heads with the purpose of creating a new world order. A major influence on the shift of France from LHT to RHT would be Napoleon Bonaparte and his influence spread to his colonies and the majority of the Western hemisphere.
Not everyone was keen on adopting this Keep Right policy, but it was less due to practical reasons and more to do with politics. In contrast, America shifted to RHT because they viewed LHT as a symbol of British power or influence. On a similar note, the British Empire and its colonies refused to do the switch to RHT and so did a bunch of other countries like Portugal, Ireland, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This would keep on for decades, but a lot of European countries gradually caved in and made the shift to RHT. The UK is going strong, though, and most of the LHT countries today were once under their rule, but Japan wasn’t one of them.
Officiating The Left
In Japan, things were on the flexible side up until this point, but with the advent of the automotive industry and its exponential growth worldwide, the swiftly changing times prompted them to begin implementing policies that were more official. They didn’t really have any reason to shift to RHT and their stance on the matter was only further solidified when they constructed their railway system during the Meiji Period (in 1872).
As in all projects of this scale, various countries were tapped and the main contenders were America, France, and Great Britain. And just as fate would have it, Great Britain won and the Japanese transportation has never looked back, or should I say right? Increasing political alliances between the two countries was also a major factor behind their decision, but who knows, maybe they didn’t choose America or France for the reason that they drove on the right?
The train network deal with Great Britain also extended to the tramcars, which paved the way for an official Keep Left system that the horses and trams also followed. It didn’t take long before private vehicles came into the picture and further cemented left-hand traffic culture into the mainstream.
America’s Attempt To Turn Japan To The Right
Actually, after the United States defeated Japan in the Second World War, they were pressured to shift to RHT. It started with a law that was passed for pedestrians to keep right, which wasn’t too difficult to implement, but when they pushed to extend the laws to make people drive on the right side, that’s when things got a bit problematic.
From a financial standpoint, the cost to switch everything around, from the train systems to the buses, trams, and road structures, it would just be way too much. Moreover, this major overhaul would take forever to finish. So, the Allied forces yielded and decided to just impose the shifts on pedestrians instead.
Technically speaking though, there was a moment in time when Japan drove on the right side well a part of Japan, that is. Okinawa was surrendered to the Americans after Japan’s aforementioned defeat and they were made to drive ‘the American way’, which was on the right. I guess this was feasible on a smaller scale, but they eventually switched back after about 20 years when Okinawa was returned to Japan.
The main challenge Japan phases as an LHT country would be buying imported cars, particularly luxury cars, because most major automotive manufacturing countries practice RHT. This challenge, though, has worked wonders for their local manufacturers.
The fact that the Japanese consumers were practically left with no other choice (especially back in the day when manufacturers didn’t recognize the LHT market yet) but to buy local cars boosted the industry and made it what it is today. It’s basically a PSA that goes to show how big of an impact supporting local enterprise can have on a country’s economy.
Now, hasn’t reading about the history behind why Japan drives on the left and why the rest of the world made a shift to the right make you realize how even the most trivial things are rooted in political decisions? More importantly, if you’re in an RHT country, doesn’t it make you wonder what if driving on the right side was the wrong side after all?