Japan's Walking Problem

It's no secret that Japan is a highly structured society–from taking your trash home, to staying silent during train rides, and never sticking your chopsticks on the rice, there are countless unspoken rules that people know about and follow. All of these "rules" aim to make life easier and more comfortable for everyone. 

However, during my last visit to Japan, I realized that there is one aspect of life in which no comprehensive rule seems to exist: walking. 

In the U.S., everybody knows that you're supposed to stand right, walk left when using escalators. I am well aware that this is considered to be highly inefficient by many behavioral scientists, but at least it allows everyone to know how to behave. On the other hand, in Japan, it all becomes very confusing. Sometimes people stand left, sometimes they stand right–and sometimes they even stand on both sides. 

The problem is not only limited to escalators. Strolling in sidewalks and crosswalks faces the same challenge: people don't seem to know where to walk. I found myself multiple times in awkward situations where I didn't know which side to move towards when someone was heading my way. 

Thus, I decided to pay close attention to people's behavior to try to make some generalizations that could make life easier to those who visit Japan. I was able to come up with three of them, but keep in mind that they will not always apply (given that there is no walking "standard" in this country). 

1. In escalators, stand left. My observations indicated that most of the time, people will stand left when riding elevators, allowing those who are in a hurry walk on the right side. There is, however, one exception: when in Osaka, stand right, and walk left. For some reason, people in Osaka did not follow the same pattern as in other cities (Tokyo/Kyoto/Mie/Miyazaki), choosing to follow the same "rule" as in the U.S. With that being said, it is important to add that in the Osaka Airport, this exception did not apply–most likely because people from all over the country are the ones using the escalators. 

2. When walking, most of the time, try to stay on the left side. This definitely does not apply on crosswalks, but at least it does on crowded places such as theme parks (Universal Studios Japan and Tokyo Disney Resort) and shopping malls. You will have to sit down and observe the crowds for a couple minutes before you notice the tendency, given that there are still many individuals who simply walk where they want... but overall, I found that walking on the left was always a little bit more convenient. 

3. The golden rule is to follow the crowd. While the first two generalizations can be quite helpful, nothing beats following the people in front of you. At times, people will suddenly decide that they'll be walking on the right side, so the whole crowd slowly starts to shift to the other side. Similarly, as mentioned before with the example of Osaka, there are places where the rules are different (some Shinto and Buddhist Shrines will have specific indications regarding which side of the stairs to climb as well). Thus, my best advice is to pay attention to your surroundings when you walk–that way you'll be able to avoid awkward interactions while also occasionally saving time.