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?
Way 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
Although 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.
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!