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The Escalator Conundrum: Osaka Right, Tokyo Left

December 1, 2009 8 comments

If you have visited Japan, perhaps you have noticed that people tend to pay attention to where they stand on an escalator: one side is for standing, one side is for walking. Now, if you live in Japan, you’ve surely figured out which side to stand on and which side to walk on…but have you really? While it is common knowledge to most Japanese, it may not be widely known to others that Kansai (especially Osaka) and Kanto have different escalator rules. My first sojourn in Japan was in Tokyo, and I learned to stand on the left and walk on the right; when I came to Osaka for the first time, I was confused to find that people here stand on the right and walk on the left. This tendency persists in the vicinity of and to the west of Osaka, and the Tokyo rules apply all around eastern Japan (as far as I know).

I have asked many people why this occurs, but nobody had any idea, so I searched the interwebs in Japanese and English and found the following theories:

  • During the Tokugawa Period, Edo (now Tokyo) was a city of samurai, who preferred to be on the left so they could draw their swords easily. Osaka, on the other hand, was a city of rich merchants, who preferred to be on the right so they could protect their money and valuables. This was, of course, before escalators existed, and most samurai probably didn’t walk around looking for chances to cut people down. Not to mention many other holes in this theory.
  • Osaka adopted the “American style” and Tokyo adopted the “British style.” I don’t know about the British, but I know that we have no established customs for using escalators in the United States. Furthermore, Tokyo is the one with more American cultural influence, not Osaka.
  • Because Osaka wanted to be different.

The last possibility seems to be the least unlikely one, as Osaka and Tokyo are rivals, culturally and otherwise. But in the end, it’s still a total mystery to me. Additional theories are welcome.

At least you now know how to spot a Tokyoite in Kansai.

BONUS WALKING TIP: In Tokyo, bikes dodge pedestrians. In Osaka, you’d better move or be prepared to die when you hear that bike bell ding.

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