Taking sides


Hmm, these two must be Kyotoites . . .

I noticed something strange during my visit to Japan.

In Tokyo’s train stations, people almost universally line up on the left side when taking the escalator, leaving the right side clear for commuters in a hurry.

In Kyoto, it’s almost like there’s no fixed rule; people either clog up the whole escalator or line up on whichever side the first person to stop chooses. (Ahh, just like home.) But by and large, they tend to gravitate towards the right.

Now here’s the 6.4-billion-yen question: Why?

In Kyoto Station (whilst riding an escalator, naturally), I overheard a fellow gaijin discussing this very issue with his companion. He chalked it up to that age-old rivalry between the old capital and the new capital.

Sounds a little far-fetched, so I’m just not satisfied with that explanation. I’ll dig around a bit until I find a more detailed rationale for this strange urban phenomenon.

4 Responses

  1. I`m not sure if the following is 100% correct but it`s taken from some now gone Japan SAQ site:

    Q. Have you ever noticed that on an escalator in the Kanto and Tokai all people are standing immobile on the left side, while in the Kansai it is on the right side. Why is that ?

    A. According to one apocryphal theory, the answer lies in the different histories of the two areas. During the Edo period, Kanto (Tokyo area) had more samurai whereas Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe) had more merchants. When they went up and down stairs, samurai wanted to be on the left side so that they could draw their swords more easily. Merchants wanted to protect their wallets from thieves, so they stayed on the right. The more widely accepted origin, however, is that the custom of standing on the right started during the World Exposition in Osaka in 1970. At that time, the Hankyu Railway made announcements asking passengers to stand on the right when they used escalators. The idea was to make it easy for the large number of foreign visitors who came to the Expo. The practice is said to be a holdover from those days.

  2. @RoomCleaningStop!: Thanks. The World Expo theory sounds quite reasonable, and I can easily see how a temporary practice was handed down until it became firmly entrenched. Even the samurai-vs-merchants hypothesis, while very improbable, may have some basis in fact.

    I’ve seen other theories as well, so the search will go on.

  3. That’s actually a very interesting question. I thought in Japan it’s just mainly people lining up on the left instead of the right, but then again I haven’t been to Kansai. It most likely has something to do with general practices in the region.

  4. @Micchi: I also laboured under the same assumption (i.e., line up on the left) until I reached Kyoto. In any case, the rule holds unless one wanders far beyond Tokyo and its environs.

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