Moving from Japan

Why do they drive on the left side of the road in Japan?

By Yasu Shimizu (Japan Luggage Express)

If you are not from Japan, you may wonder why they drive on the left side of the road. In some countries, such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand, they drive on the left side of the road, just like they do in Japan. Well, there is a simple reason for this.

This custom goes back to the Edo Era, which was long before the advent of automobiles in Japan. The Edo Era is the period between 1603 and 1868 when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate government. It is called the Edo Era because the Shogunate government was established in the city of Edo, the area presently known as Tokyo. Before the government was established there, Edo was a rural area, but after the establishment of the government, the city started to thrive. Naturally, there was a large population of samurai (a military caste in the feudal days of Japan).

Imagine that you are a samurai walking on a road in Edo and another samurai is walking toward you. Samurai carry their swards at all times; they keep them in sheaths which are on the left side of their waists. Sheaths are very long and take up a lot of space. As you and the other samurai pass each other, and if you walk on the right side of the road, the possibility exists that your sheath and that of the other samurai will collide (i.e., your sheath will bump into the other samurai’s sheath).

If this happens, you will end up in big trouble. In such a case, the two samurai would pick a fight with each other, and because they are carrying deadly weapons, soon they would start killing each other.

To prevent anything like this from happening, they started to walk on the left side of the road. Perhaps it was a way for a samurai to say, “I am not going to pick a fight with you” to another samurai walking toward him. Although this practice started among samurai, people in town gradually began to follow the custom and walked on the left side of the road, especially if someone was approaching from ahead. Then, not only pedestrians but also people who were pulling carts to carry things followed this custom. Carriage carts run by horses did the same.

When automobiles were introduced to public roads in Japan, the Japanese government followed this custom, as it was already an accepted practice to travel on the left side of the road.