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Escalator Etiquette: Kanto vs. Kansai

By Asian American in Tokyo | June 10, 2008

Japan is known for proper etiquette and you can find evidence of “proper behavior” everywhere. Perhaps one area less noticed by visiting foreigners is escalator etiquette. In Japan, every time you ride an escalator, people who are just standing/riding stay to one side to ensure a clear lane for others (who may be in a hurry) to pass. You’d think this is simply common courtesy, but it doesn’t happen in most countries since most people invariably choose a different side to stand on creating a zig zag obstacle course for the walkers most of the time. Japan is so crowded, yet the system somehow works as everyone stands on the same side no matter what. The Japanese create maximum pedestrian transportation efficiency in one of the most densely populated places on Earth by using social pressure to maintain “wa” (the Japanese word for “harmony”) in a homogenous society. Check it out.

This is certainly an amazing societal feat in an of itself, but here’s where it gets really interesting. In the Kanto area (where Tokyo is located), everyone stands to the left and walkers pass on the right. In the Kansai area (where Osaka is located), everyone stands to the right and walkers pass to the left. Legend has it that in Tokyo, samurai preferred to stay on the left so they could draw their swords easily, whereas in Osaka merchants preferred to be on the right to protect their belongings carried in the right hand. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that since I doubt swords were used much since escalators were placed into use, but that’s the theory I’ve heard. Most Japanese people I’ve asked simply say “I don’t know, that’s the way it is”.

Tokyo Osaka

Anyone out there know why this is?

Oh, one more thing. Next time you’re at Narita take a few minutes to watch human behavior on the escalator. Because it’s an airport and many people from different cultures are passing through, escalator culture clashes occur resulting in chaos and irritated Japanese. Yet, none of the foreigners seem to notice. Be sure to check it out and smile knowingly to yourself.

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Topics: Culture, Gaijin Tip, Places | 11 Comments »

11 Responses to “Escalator Etiquette: Kanto vs. Kansai”

  1. David Says:
    October 9th, 2008 at 10:17 am

    The layout of courtrooms is the opposite in Kansai too.

  2. Cody Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 4:03 am

    That’s funny, when I was in Ikebukuro this summer everybody always stood the the right.

  3. Chelsey Says:
    December 9th, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    I definitely noticed this….everywhere I’ve been in Japan, even in Okinawa, the people stand on the left. But when I was in Kyoto last week, it was the opposite and it drove me absolutely crazy!!

  4. Osaka is a strange place « Pursuing Wabi Says:
    February 9th, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    [...] In Tokyo you’re suppose to stand on the left side of an escalator, and leave a lane clear for those who walk up or down.  In Osaka,they stand on the right side of [...]

  5. Mike Says:
    February 14th, 2009 at 5:26 am

    We stand on the right in Britain too ^^

  6. Shae Says:
    April 3rd, 2009 at 4:46 am

    This is practiced in Washington DC too.

  7. tudza Says:
    April 3rd, 2009 at 7:13 am

    I have seen some escalators that spell it out on each step which side to stand on if you are riding only, ditto for moving walkways.

    I caution against taking any notice of or spreading this samurai preferred sword side theory. It sounds exactly like one of the many false reasons given for why some places drive on the left and others drive on the right.

    ( With regard to side of the road you drive on, the best and most well researched reason I have seen states that it originally depends on the style of horse/ox drawn cart used in a region. The style of cart governs where the driver sits or walks and hence the best side of the road for cart traffic. I do not recall specifics, but I imagine there is a secondary effect that goes, “We decided to copy these guys system.” )

  8. chiara Says:
    June 22nd, 2009 at 3:13 am

    I live in San Francisco and in MUNI and BART stations’ escalators, the same thing occurs. We locals usually stands on the right side to give way to rushing commuters. Problem or gridlock occurs when out of towners stand side to side. A simple excuse me usually get them moving to the right side.

  9. Thales Says:
    August 17th, 2009 at 4:45 am

    The sword/Samurai reason seems sound to me. In the Jujutsu Dojo we are always mindful of our left side, entering a room and exiting so that our “sword-side” is always free and accessible, moving so that access to our “sword” is always available.

    -Thales

  10. Keep Left « MartosC, [Gm] – v2.0 Says:
    November 22nd, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    [...] but the rumor said it has something to do with samurai in Kanto and merchants in Kansai (source: 1, [...]

  11. My trip to Kansai. Kyoto and Osaka | bakaintheair Says:
    July 31st, 2013 at 5:59 am

    [...] helpful and do not follow as strict etiquette while using escalators as Tokyoites do (described inĀ one older blog by another user) and [...]

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