About a quarter of the world’s nations drive on the left side of the road, Japan being one of them. But why do they drive on the left side when so many other countries drive on the right? Have they always used the left side of the road? Do Japan’s reasons have anything to do with the reasons that other countries drive on the left? The answers might not be as simple as you’d think, but they are definitely pretty interesting.

Well, Why Does Anyone Drive on the Left Side of the Road?

medieval-knights-years-live-chat-by-liveperson-knight-142509Way back before cars were even invented, almost everybody traveled on the left side of the road. It just made sense. Since most people are right-handed, swordsmen preferred to travel on the left in order to have their right arm nearer to a potential opponent and their sword and scabbard further from them. Since the scabbard was worn on the left, it also prevented two people from knocking swords accidentally and sparking a duel.

Right-handed folks also have an easier time getting on a horse from the left side, especially if they are wearing a sword. It’s also safer to get on and off a horse on the side of the road instead of in the middle. That way they can stay out of traffic and not have to worry about hitting or getting hit by anyone. Therefore it makes sense that if one mounts on the left, then they should ride on the left as well. Both of these reasons make sense, so it’s no wonder that people would travel on the left during these times.


In the late 1700s, some crafty teamsters began transporting farm stuffs in wagons pulled by teams of horses. These wagons had no seats, so the “driver” sat on the rear left horse. This way they could easily hit all the other horses with their whip. Again, as most people were right-handed, this made sense.

Since they sat on the left, just like most countries do in their cars nowadays, they wanted everybody to pass on the left so they could have an easier time making sure that the wagons didn’t clip each other. For these reasons the wagons kept to the right side of the road. Obviously this conflicted with the customary walking setup, so things started to get complicated.

An official keep-right rule for all was introduced in Paris in 1794. Later, Napoleon’s conquests spread this custom to much of Europe. The countries that resisted Napoleon naturally resisted driving on the right as well. Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Portugal maintained their left-side driving ways to stick it to Napoleon. This division between the left and right-hand nations of Europe would remain in place for more than 100 years.


Over the years, the majority of nations have decided to drive on the right. Britain has long refused to make the switch. With the travel industry booming in the 1800s, traffic regulations were made in every country and left-hand driving became law in Britain in 1835. Countries which were part of the British Empire also abided by this law. This is why countries such as India, Australia, and the former British colonies in Africa keep left as well. But why does Japan keep to the left?

Why Japan Drives on the Left

Japanese_railwayAlthough Japan was never part of the British Empire, its traffic also keeps to the left. This practice goes back all the way to the Edo period (1603-1867) when Samurai ruled the country (same sword and scabbard deal as before), but it wasn’t until 1872 that this unwritten rule became official. That was the year when Japan’s first railway was introduced.

Three countries approached the Japanese government to help them build a railway system. These three countries were America, France, and Britain. In the end, Britain won out. In 1872 the first Japanese railway was up and running thanks to the British. A massive network of railways spread out from there, all of which were left-side running. And as we all know, Japan loves their trains. If American or French railways had been built instead, Japan would probably be driving on the right side of the road today.

Shinjuku at Night, Tokyo

Horse railways and electric tram cars followed the left-side driving precedent set by the railways in Japan. Around 1900, automobiles started to show up. An order issued in 1902 by the Tokyo police said for the first time that pedestrians had to keep to the left side of roads. Finally in 1924, left-side driving was mandated as official law.

After the defeat of Japan during World War II, Okinawa was under control of the United States and made to drive on the right. Okinawa changed back to driving on the left when it was returned to Japan. The change took place on July 30, 1978. It is one of the only places to have changed from right to left hand traffic in the late twentieth century.

So tell me, did you know why Japan drives on the left side of the road? Do you think it makes more sense to drive on the left or the right? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Sites Referenced:
Wikipedia: Right and Left Hand Traffic

  • Jon Walmsley

    Explained why the British (as in me) drive on the left, the reason for which I never knew, so it was interesting in just that respect with all the other stuff too; good article!

  • 暖より

    The difficulty is that, cars would have to drive in counter-clockwise circles – in other words, driving on the RIGHT side of the street, in order to cause tornadoes, given that tornadoes are low-pressure systems, and they turn counter-clockwise. Imagine the speed one would have to drive in circles!

  • Giuseppe Puopolo

    No, I thought Japan was one of the right-side-driving countries.
    To be honest, I prefer right-side-driving because I use my left hand to drive, and my right hand to do…. everything else!! Like, holding my bagel, drinking my coffee, adjusting the radio. Being a righty, I couldn’t do all that so elegantly with my left hand without crashing!!

  • R

    Steering wheel usual ALWAYS in the middle of road except you ride car from another side system. This helps you to see all road clear. I have on idea at first that left or right is better. But after read some people habit while driving. “To be honest, I prefer right-side-driving because I use my left hand to drive, and my right hand to do…. everything else!! Like, holding my bagel, drinking my coffee, adjusting the radio. Being a righty,”…lol I think left side is better because it force most people (righty) to use his better control hand to drive a car. In fact, you should’nt do that while driving car. :P

  • Stephanie

    I’m right handed as well but drive on the left, and I don’t feel comfortable using just my left hand to drive. But it works fine to do all the radio controls and snacking with. I’ve never had the chance to try the other way.

  • DCP

    Thanks man good read!

  • Scott Maka

    It makes more sense to drive on the left because your strong hand (most people are right-handed) is always on the wheel – even when you’re changing gears.

  • penis

    I think your a homo

  • Logic

    ONE – You shouldn’t be eating, drinking and playing with the radio – that’s what causes crashes

    TWO – If drive right hand side (Left side of the road) you have your strongest hand/arm controlling the steering wheel (the most important component of avoiding crashes

  • Joey

    thanks mom.
    I feel like you’d make a good cross walk captain somewhere lol.
    But if you’re going to tout safety, driving with both hands on the wheel is ideal
    happy trolling to you too :*

  • Sam Weymouth

    I believe it was legendary humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner Joseph Zachary Stalin who once said and I quote, “I’m a joker, I love poker and I’m a Wall Street Broker.. Some say I’m the gangster of love.”

  • mosadiq

    since 3/ 4th of the world drive on the right side of thr raod I thing all those stoopit countrys and people should swich it to the right side of the raod too just to right and easy for themselfs and rest of the world, because it looks realy stopit.the way they drive.

  • Mal_Adjusted

    Okay, so driving on the left is not about British intransigence. However, if the world was to standardise things, then the lefty countries would need to change simply because there are less of them. Similarly, the Brits (and Americans) should swallow their pride and switch to the metric system.

  • Mal_Adjusted

    Think you need to take your medication,

  • grace24

    The Brits do mostly use the metric system, it’s only really kilometres that aren’t used much

  • MC Wong

    USA was also a British colony and would have started with carriages, horses, and horse drawn carts driving on the left. What made them switch to the right after independence? The French and European knights would have the same issues as the English knights drawing their swords with right hand when approaching oncoming strangers/opponents?
    China drives on the right but British influence via HK was strong. Also Japan invaded China during the 30s thru 1945 and would have mandated driving on the left during their decade long rule. Same with Taiwan and Korea which were Japanese colonies.

  • Jodie Robinson

    If a butterfly can cause a tornado, then I’m pretty sure a car driving in the wrong place (the right hand side of a road) can do a bit more damage.

  • Ray

    Why doesn’t Canada drive on the left?

  • Paul Kennedy

    Actually it’s wrong to suggest that Japan would drive on the right if their railways had been built by the French.
    French railways operate on the left (as do their neighbors in Belgium, Switzerland and Italy).

  • Martin

    Left handed people are gifted, yes. I am RH!

    I just wanted to say that a few years ago Samoa changed over from driving on Right to driving on the left, like in New Zealand. So the last country to change sides, actually changed to driving on left side of road!

  • Martin

    there are many places in the world where you must chamge from Left to right driving, Thailand to Laos, several parts of Africa.
    If China was excluded, almost half the people in world would drive on Left.

  • Martin

    USA was aided by right side driving France to become independent from Britain, France is your oldest ally!
    USA then tried to invade Canada but failed, though Canada also changed over to French style righty driving too.