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).
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 percent 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.
Old manners sure are hard to break.