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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.

Wagon

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.

Left-Right

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
2pass.co.uk

  • Ben

    That was an incredibly interesting read. I never knew that! Thanks, John!

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Very interesting! Although I have lived in Japan (and driven on Japanese roads) for a long time now, I didn’t know about this at all!

    To be honest, I never really cared!

    It is a bit confusing for a few minutes if you have to change from driving on the right side to driving on the left side, but it’s not really a problem. My biggest issue was that I kept confusing the wipers and the blinkers!! ^__^;; ….

    I’m left-handed and I really don’t care if I drive on the right or the left side on the road. I don’t really see any difference to be honest.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jessengatai1 Jesse Ngatai

    is that really correct? A quater of the world drive on the left? I swear its more.. I mean, all of Europe australia? asia? I thought it was only NA that drove on the right?

  • Whitney

    Not all of Asia drives on the left. China and Korea both drive on the right.

  • http://twitter.com/memedai Meme Dailan

    Damn it Britian. Because of you Japan is driving left and all there awesome cars are not available in my country. xD

  • John

    lol, I never even thought about the blinkers and the wipers – haha. I’ve never had the opportunity to drive somewhere where they drove on the left but I imagine it would definitely take some time for my brain to fully adjust to it.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    It does, but you’ll get used to it rather quickly.
    You’ll notice when other people in the car mention that the windows are now clean enough! *g*
    I’m not looking foward to switching back when visiting my home country! ;)

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    All of Europe drives on the left? So, all the European country, including my home country (Germany) drive on the “wrong” side? *g*
    The majority of Europe drives on the right side as far as I know (not sure about the tiny countries).

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Hehe. In Japan you are a “BIG” one if you drive a fancy foreign car (preferably a German BMW or Mercedes) with the steering wheel on the left side!!! *g*

  • DAVIDPD

    Haha. Or any way they please in my experience…Hehe.

  • http://twitter.com/WackoMcGoose Kimura

    I thought the reason the US drove on the right was because everyone had a “stick it to England” attitude after the Revolutionary War, and deliberately wanted to do the opposite of them? And then right-handed driving caught on with the rest of the world, except for a few countries who just had too deep a tradition of left-lanedness.

    Still, didn’t realize Japan’s left-lanedness was because trains. Makes sense, actually…

  • http://twitter.com/memedai Meme Dailan

    I’m German and I’m sick of BMW and Mercedes… But having a Japanese import car in Germany is considered as a car freak who only races illegally. A Rauh Welt Porsche from Japan though is a dream. :D

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I’m German as well, but you know that you shouldn’t talk about cars to a German female! *g*
    I drive a very small Suzuki Wagon R and I love it!
    The only issue I have is the speed limit on Japanese highways. I don’t like speed, but under 100km/h is even too slow for somebody like me! *g*

    All those Japanese who have those great cars that can go super fast can’t really speed with them!

  • http://twitter.com/memedai Meme Dailan

    It is proven that no speed limit is actually better and reduces number of accidents but 100 sure is tooo slow.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jessengatai1 Jesse Ngatai

    i never said any side was wrong* .. you just implied that?

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    My small car can’t go much faster than that anyways! (T___T) ….

    It takes forever to overtake others, too! :(

  • Cara

    very interesting. it is a very odd feeling to have to readjust your thinking “how to drive” when you begin to drive on the left as opposed to the right. once you get used to it it’s not too bad. it does take some adjustment when you have been driving one way for years then switch. after being back in the states for about 6 months, i accidentally pulled out of a parking lot to the left side of the road and then realized i wasn’t in Japan anymore! that was scary.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    No, sorry! What I meant is that according to you most European countries drive on the left side when in fact they drive on the right side, so according to you they all drive on the “wrong” side as they’re supposed to drive on the left side.
    Hope that was less confusing! ^^; …
    Just tried to be funny there, but I guess it didn’t get transported right. Sorry about that!

  • The glumpf

    Yes! This means that i won’t have to adjust how to drive a car! Y’know, when i ..actually learn….how to drive….

  • http://twitter.com/kima_siksin Kima

    Quite honestly, before I started driving, I was so into watching Japanese shows that I got used driving being done on the left side – and one of the first couple of times I drove a car, I actually went and steered to the left, before I got scolded by my mom. Now it’s natural of course, that once I get on the road, I drive on the right side, but I realized that whenever I imagine myself driving, without seeing the road, I often imagine it done on the left side. This idea just kind of sticks, so maybe it makes more sense? The only thing is, even though Japan drives on the left side, aren’t the steering wheels on the right side of the car? That’s one thing that kind of gives both sides their point – if you drive on the same side that the wheel is on, then you can get in the car without worrying about an accident, but if you drive on one side and the steering wheel is on the other, at least you are able to see better whether you’re in danger of hitting a car going in the opposite direction. Either way is fine, I guess. But anyway, it was great to read about the logic behind it, with the swords and stuff. Nice information, thanks! :D

  • j3ss4ndr4

    An interesting tidbit about Okinawa that my brother told me (he was stationed there when he was an active Marine): The roads were built for right-hand driving, thus turns are banked that way. They changed to driving on the left and have a lot of accidents because of the roads being banked the wrong way. I’m assuming that’s true, since he was there for several years. ^_^

  • John

    That is really interesting – haha, I had no idea. Thanks for sharing!

  • ZXNova

    LEFT HANDED POWA, Power to the left handed people!

  • Katecakechin

    You say “Britain has long refused to make the switch” as if it’s a bad thing. I’d like to point out that in the northern hemisphere, driving on the right causes/worsens hurricanes and wind storms, as does driving on the left in the southern hemisphere, so Japan and the UK have it right. Also I’m pretty sure America and France (and therefore the rest of mainland Europe) only drive on the right because the British drive on the left. Excuse me if I come across as rude here, but just saying.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    And driving in circles causes tornadoes.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    How in the world does road orientation affect weather? When you are driving, you are going north, south, east, west, or some combination thereof. It doesn’t matter which side of the road you are on.
    I don’t know where you heard that crap, but just so you know, it’s not true. If everybody were to drive in the same direction all at the same time, it might seriously affect the weather, but road orientation has nothing to do with it.

    Oh, and you don’t come off as rude, but you definitely don’t make yourself look good by saying such things and not even providing proof.

  • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

    Great article! I was confused at first though because I didn’t know what region you were talking about. From “Way back before cars were even invented…” until “Paris…”

  • kun kun

    wen messenger is riding one the right side you can take a message easy from the other persons right hand and he can see you coming. less time lost in communication….

  • Nisei girl

    I never knew about this until my Japanese uncle (I am nisei) just told me last summer when we visited him in Japan. Thanks for sharing all the neat info!!! Always enjoy your posts.

  • Mariana

    In Portugal we drive on the right…

  • Kasma88

    Great article, I’d never thought about why there’s such a split between driving on the right or the left but it makes complete sense! It’s interesting to think that a simple detail in our lives like which side we drive on has been influenced by so many things throughout history.

  • Kasma88

    As a fellow Brit I’ve got to say I didn’t take that sentence like you have at all. Also, if you read the article through then you’ll learn exactly why America and France drive on the right and it’s certainly not for such a petty reason. As this article shows, there’s a lot more to the simple details in our society than we think!

  • Alvaro

    I think you missed the part where he says “Over the years, the majority of nations have decided to drive on the right.”

  • Mariana

    That is very possible :I

  • John

    Haha, yeah that’s because before I got to the Paris bit it pretty much applied to any nations that had people carrying weapons and then any with teamsters. Which was a lot. So, yeah up until that point it was just kind of general.

  • MowgliB

    Yes, I really need to understand the logic of this one. How does a car create a storm?

  • Zarma

    Neat. We should definitely drive on the left, though. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly been beheaded due to accidental scabbard clinking.

  • Woahify

    I always thought it was because the first cars introduced to Japan were from Australia.

  • John

    Happens all the time, man.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=694774392 Travis Freeman

    ^This

    I think for the first 3 months I was here I would turn on the wipers instead of the blinkers.

    If i’m driving somewhere new and panic due to traffic or not knowing where i’m going I still hit the the wipers instead of the blinkers…. >.<

  • Peter

    Wow, had no ideathere were so many countries in which everyone drives on the right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/norm.stansfield.3 Norm Stansfield

    What Britain, Japan and Australia have in common is that all three are islands. While there may be historical reasons why they originally went with left side driving, the reason why they could afford to stick with it is that they’re islands, so there’s not a lot of cars designed for right side driving, coming in.

    I imagine that if Britain was in the middle of continental Europe, they’d run into quite a bit of trouble because of this policy. Even now, British consumers have significantly fewer options than the rest of Europe, when it comes to buying a car.

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    Fascinating. The BBC had me pretty much convinced that driving on the left was the near universal rule and driving on the right was an American thing. Those darned Brits.

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    If you watch British television, you can easily come away with the impression that all of Europe drives on the left. (Most of us in the English-speaking world don’t watch non-British European television, probably on account of language barrier issues and of course availability; but a lot of British TV shows are available in America, on cable, on DVD, at the library, etc.)

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    In most American cars, the blinkers and the wipers are controlled with the same stick. You move the whole stick up or down to activate the blinkers, or you twist the end of it to activate the wipers. In some cases, you also pull the same stick toward you to toggle the high-beam headlights.

  • henderson101

    Not really. Every European manufacturer, Korean manufacturer, Japanese manufacturer and pretty much every other Manufacturer either builds cars in the UK or imports right hand drive (did I get that right? We sit on the right, but drive on the left, right?) Citroen, Peugeot, Renault, Kia, Vauxhall (aka Opel/GMC), Chrysler, Daewoo, Lotus, Fiat, Ducatti, Lamborghini, Seat, Land Rover you name it…. Watch an episode of Top Gear (the original UK version) for plenty of examples! Hell, even Apple-pie Ford produces cars in the UK!! There is a Ford factory about 25 miles from where I’m sitting now.

  • henderson101

    When you drive on the left, you sit on the right. In the UK, it is extremely rare to have a car with the steering wheel on the left. Usually they are European specialist models.

  • henderson101

    I remember being told when I was in Sweden, that they actually switched sides in the late 60’s/early 70’s. So “all of” Mainland Europe is a very recent “thing”.

  • henderson101

    I think it varies. I’ve driven cars in the UK where the roles were switched or combined. There’s no hard and fast rule.

  • John

    Oh yeah, I totally forgot about that. I’ve been driving Japanese brand cars for a long time now and forgot that most American made cars are like that.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/YAMAstudios 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!

  • http://twitter.com/jwyvp 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

  • http://twitter.com/zombun 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.