It's Hard For Japan To Change Its Escalator Manners

Photo: Shuji Kajiyama, AP

One of my first memories of moving to Japan in 2001 was the surprise at seeing how everyone lined up on one side of the escalator, leaving an open path for people in a rush. How courteous, I thought. But now, there are campaigns to change the country’s long-standing escalator manners.

The tradition is so ingrained and a part of modern Japanese culture that there are even regional differences. In Osaka, for example, people stand on the escalator’s right side, while people in Tokyo stand on the left side.

Why is there a difference? People in Kansai tend to think they’re distinct from other parts of the country, especially Tokyo, but the reason that’s often given is that this is due to historical differences between Osaka, a city of merchants, and Tokyo, a city of samurai.

The merchants kept their coin purses on one side, while the samurai wore their swords on the other. It’s a nice story, but Osaka wasn’t the only merchant center in Japan. Tokyo (née Edo) became one, too.

According to Nikkei, the first escalator in Japan was installed in Tokyo in 1914. It wasn’t until 1967 that escalators were finally installed in Osaka at Umeda Station.

There were announcements at Hankyu Umeda Station telling people to leave open the left-hand side of the escalator, thus advising people to stand on the right. In 1970, when the World Expo was held in Osaka, more escalators were constructed and the practice of standing on the right continued.

There is a theory that this practice of standing on the right side was learned by Osaka rail operators from studying the London transportation system. The practice of standing on the right and walking on the left has existed in the London Underground since escalators were installed in 1911.

The Tokyo style of standing on the left follows the direction of traffic, with cars driving on the left side.

There have been several campaigns to try to change Japan’s escalator habits. For example, in 1998, the “keep right” announcements at Hankyu Umeda Station ceased. Yet, people in Osaka still stand on the right (pictured, below).

Photo: Kyoww, CC0 1.0

In 2015, there was talk about issuing fines for people in Osaka if they stood on the right side. “We won’t stand for this. It’s what sets us apart from the rest of Japan,” Eiji Saito, spokesperson for the Japanese Association of Railroad Station Commutation Concessionaires, told The Japan Times in 2015. [Full disclosure: I am a columnist for The Japan Times.]

There have been several campaigns since then to get people in Japan to stand on both sides of the escalators, because people running up and down escalators isn’t exactly safe, especially if an older person was accidentally bumped or knocked over.

Also, another concern is that the foreign tourists flooding into Japan might not be familiar with the country’s escalator habits, especially these regional differences.

The concern about accidents is real. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that between 2011 and 2013, over 3,800 people were ended up in the hospital due to escalator accidents.

“It is not necessary to leave one side open,” a representative of escalator manufacturers told the Yomiuri (via The Telegraph). “There are some people who have an arm or hand that is incapable of functioning and have difficulty in keeping a specific side clear.”

The practice of standing to one side was banned at Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda in 2015. Yet, if you go to either airport, you still see people naturally lining up on one side.

It’s not only accidents that are the problem. The combination of standing and walking isn’t as efficient. As The Telegraph reports, there was a study that found more standing-only people could get up an escalator than a combination of walking. Thirty per cent more people get up the escalator when standing only.

Recently, there have been other campaigns across Japan, such as in Sapporo and Sendai, telling people not to stand on one side of the escalators. With the Olympics coming to Tokyo, there has also been a push to tell people not to walk up moving escalators.

(The handrail reads, “Don’t walk.”)

The warning tells people not to walk and to stand on both sides of the escalator.

Yet..

Old manners sure are hard to break.


Comments

    I hope they don’t change. Little things that are structured, have unwritten rules like this are one of the things that keeps me coming back to Japan

      Exactly, little things like this are what I love about Japan as well, it's courteous.

        On the other hand, its dangers too, so maybe they should switch to alternating, and thus leaving a space for people to go up, but slowing them down enough to stop them ending up in a hospital.

          We don't know enough about the injuries though, Japan has a high elderly population and massive overcrowding could be a contributing factor.

          I would like to see how many injuries are reported in other countries that have less density and lower numbers of elderly people that also have similar escalator etiquette.

          We don't actually know if 3,800 people in two years is a lot or not even in comparison to a country with no ingrained escalator etiquette.

          We could speculate a lot, without enough information there isn't much anyone can really determine, like how many people were injured from being distracted by there phone while standing, or how many just tripped and fell getting on.

          I'm not saying injuries couldn't be prevented from no one walking up the escalator, I'm sure that a fair few of the injuries reported where from people in a hurry walking up them.

          I personally think the politeness and respect for others that standing to one side outweighs the injuries sustained as a result.

    I started the article thinking "Well, in Australia we all stand to the left and left people go up on the right" due to the whole we drive / walk etc on the left, right for overtaking only.

    And then I got to the part where its different for different regions and went 'Yeah. Thats a problem.'

    Its interesting that the UK is opposite side to us since that would make it the same as the American walk / drive / stand on the right and pass on the left, as opposed to the side of the road they actually drive on.

      People stand to one side where you are? Here in Adelaide they stand wherever, usually in the middle and even my purposefully loud stomping isn't enough to cue them in on the fact that someone is walking up behind them and they should move out of the way

        Pretty much everywhere I've been in NSW its all stand to the left, pass on the right. The little I travelled in Queensland was the same. Of course, it'd just highlight how alike we all are if we've got our own inconsistencies by state.

    Started article thinking 'Eh... this can't be that interesting...'

    Became utterly engrossing to read about the little things in another culture and the nuances that make them interesting.

    Thanks for the great article Bashcraft :)

      Yeah there are always these little intricacies in other countries that are vastly different to your own

      For example when i was in Germany, They take what you say seriously. Like here if someone asked you how good you were at a sport and you jokingly said "Oh yeah, im pretty good" we would understand that. Whereas in germany, i found they took you at your world literally.

        Yup totally, Germans are direct and typically up front. Makes flirting a whole
        Lot easier.

        Two other differences, one from the US when I visited a friend in California back in '99 that it was legal to do U-turns at traffic lights. In fact, at one intersection we were at they had traffic lights just for doing that.

        The other was in Canada near Cambridge, where I caused a panic in the friend I was visiting when I started crossing at an intersection when the green walk light came up. It turns out that pedestrians don't have the right of way even when you get the walk light, you're still meant to wait for the traffic that was honking at me.

    Its lil things like this that are the bed rock of civilization.

    Studied in Kyoto for a year. Went to a few other places in Kansai as well as Tokyo.

    Oosaka is the only place they stood on the right. Thus, I think it has to do with the bay winds.

    See I assumed this was the same everywhere. In Australia people stand to the left, in Germany to the right. It matches the driving and foot path side. Only the rude or overseas people need to be asked to stand aside/the correct side. I don’t know where Brian is from, is it the US?

    Easier just to take the stairs, less to think about..

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