World Facts

Which Side of the Road Does Japan Drive On?

Japan drives on the left hand side of the road.

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Most modern roads have bidirectional traffic, meaning that the road is divided between two opposite directions of travel, and countries or territories must choose which side of the road vehicles will drive on: either left-hand traffic (LHT) or right-hand traffic (RHT). Currently, 163 countries and territories around the world use right-hand traffic, while the remaining 78 countries and territories use left-hand traffic. Many countries that drive on the left side of the road were colonies of the British Empire at some point in time. Although never part of the British Empire, Japan also drives on the left side of the road. 

Rationale for Left-Hand Driving

Historically, centuries before the invention of the automobile, travellers on foot or by horse usually stayed along the left side of the road since the majority of people were right-handed. In the event of a fight, it was much easier to draw a sword and battle an opponent on the opposite (right) side. In addition, the scabbard, which is the sheath for a sword, was worn on the left side of the body to ensure that scabbards did not collide. Similarly, right-handed people were usually more comfortable dismounting a horse on the left, and therefore riding on the left side of the road meant that the rider would not dismount in the middle of the road.

After the invention of the wagon, staying along the left side of the road was less important, and some switched to the right side. In fact, the switch to the right side of the road became common since most wagon drivers sat on the leftmost horse pulling the wagon. The right-hand tradition was further spread and imposed in French parts of Europe following the Napoleonic Wars. However, most colonies of the British Empire maintained the tradition of driving on the left.

Driving in Japan

Japan has never been part of the British Empire, but its laws state that drivers must keep to the left side. In Japan, the LHT practice dates back to the Edo (1603-1867), when Japan was ruled by Samurai. The Samurai also carried swords, called a katana, on the left side, and therefore travel on the left was more practical. Although unofficial for an extended period of time, travelling on the left side became law in Japan in 1872, when the country's first railway was built. Three countries, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France offered to assist the Japanese government in the construction of its railroad, and the British were ultimately selected. Unsurprisingly, the massive rail network introduced trains running on the left side. If the British had not been selected, it is possible that Japan would have a different traffic system today. Automobiles followed the LHT precedent set by the railway system, and LHT for cars was officially made a law in 1924.

World War II

The system of LHT was disrupted in Japan after defeat in World War II. Okinawa fell under the control of the United States and was forced to switch to right-hand travel for a period of time. However, after Okinawa became part of Japan again, a switch back to LHT was introduced on July 30, 1978. No other country or territory changed which side of the road it drives on during the later stages of the 20th century.

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