Most countries in the world drive on the right-hand side of the road, and only 35% of the world’s population drives on the left. For the countries that do drive on the left, most of them do so because of British imperialism. However, Japan was never under British control. So, this begs the question—what made Japan decide to drive on the left?
Before cars, trains and other various vehicles were on the road, people simply walked. Back during the Edo period which took place between 1603 and 1867, the tradition of walking on the left was established. The main reason was because samurai would walk on left due to their swords.
The sheath of a samurai’s sword was on their left and they would draw them with their right hand. This meant that when walking past someone, namely another samurai, they would feel more prepared having their right hand on the side closest to the other person. Also, having the sheath on the outside of the road meant it wouldn’t be bumping into any one they passed by, e.g. another samurai’s sword. Even worse, if the sheath was on the inside, then a passerby could attempt to grab it.
With samurai sticking to the left, the rest of society followed as most people would get out of an incoming samurai’s way. This is not unique to Japanese society either. Many countries defaulted to walking on the left side and this has been attributed to what was best for right-handed swordsman.
For countries that defaulted to the right, it’s speculated horses may have played a role in that decision. Horses are typically mounted from the left-hand side and also led from the left-hand side, meaning the right hand would hold the reins. In an effort to keep the animals separated while passing each other, right-hand traffic would have made the most sense.
Walking is one thing, but driving is another. While this precedent does play a role in Japan’s left-hand traffic choice, it doesn’t completely answer the question of “Why does Japan drive on the left?” For that, we’ll need to look right after the Edo period to where the once isolated nation of Japan had just opened its borders.
Britain’s Influence on Japanese Railroads
The rule of staying left in Japan was an unspoken and unofficial one. However, in 1872 the idea of the left being the correct side for “traffic” became official once Japan finished building its very first railway system. However, they didn’t do it all on their own as three different nations, i.e., France, Britain, and the United States, all reached out to Japan and offered their technical assistance to build their first railway.
The Tokugawa shogunate issued a grant which would have allowed American diplomat Anton L. C. Portman the right to construct a railway line from Yokohama to Edo (later renamed Tokyo). However, the shogunate fell shortly after in 1867 and the grant was not permitted to continue.
In 1868, the first steam locomotive was brought to Japan by a Scottish merchant named Thomas Blake Glover. He demonstrated its ability on an 8-mile track in Nagasaki. While impressed, Japan had just spent about 250 years as an almost completely isolated nation. This meant they weren’t particularly trusting of foreigners and the idea of letting Japan’s first true railway be built by foreigners was unacceptable. Instead, they decided to let Britain finance their first railway, while also contracting British and other European railway specialists as advisors. These advisors were to teach Japanese engineers how to build the railroad and then were instructed to promptly leave.
This compromise successfully led to the first railway built between Shimbashi and Yokohama on September 12, 1872.
Overtime, Japan has built up a very large and very successful railway system, which is and has always been on the left-hand side. This precedent naturally led to building roads for cars that also drive on the left side. However, the law for left-hand traffic wasn’t officially written until 1924.
So the answer to “Why does Japan drive on the left?” can be summarized down to, like many other countries, Britain’s influence. However, rather than at one point being under the British Empire’s control, it was all because Britain helped advise the Japanese on how to structure their rail system.
Many people believe that if the United States or France had helped build Japan’s railways, then Japan would instead be driving of the right-hand side.
The only time Japan has ever had any right-hand side driving was after World War II in Okinawa. The United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands was the governing body from 1950 to 1972. During this time Okinawa was switched to right-hand traffic laws. They switch back to left-hand traffic after Okinawa was returned in 1972, which makes Okinawa one of the very few places in the world to switch from right to left-handed traffic after the 20th century.
Interestingly, many countries that formerly drove on the left for one reason or another have switched to the right. Between 1919 and 1986, 34 territories have made the change from left to right-hand traffic.