Japan's escalator rules drastically changed to prevent accidents

People keep to the left side of an escalator in JR Tokyo Station.
PHOTO: The Japan News/ANN

Escalators are convenient to ride, but if something goes wrong they can be the scene of serious accidents. The practice has become established of keeping to the left side of an escalator in Tokyo and to the right side in Osaka, while leaving the other side open for people in a hurry. However, many are unaware that an industry group is calling for people not to walk on escalators and not to leave one side open as a rule to prevent accidents. Railway companies are also appealing to people to ensure compliance with the rule.

According to the Consumer Affairs Agency, a total of 3,865 people were taken to hospitals due to escalator accidents in Tokyo from 2011 to 2013. The majority of the cases were injuries caused by falls. The cases included "toppled over by losing balance while walking up an escalator" and "toppled over as their cane was jostled by a person who was walking up an escalator."

The agency warns that if people walk on an escalator, they run the risk of an accident not only by losing their balance themselves but also by jostling other people.

According to the Japan Elevator Association, comprising elevator and escalator makers, escalators are designed based on the assumption that people will not walk on them and the correct way of using an escalator is by standing still and holding the handrail. "It's not necessary to leave one side open. There are some people who have an arm or a hand that is incapable of functioning and have difficultly keeping a specific side open," said an official at the association.

Major railway companies started a campaign calling for people not to leave one side open and not to walk on escalators about five years ago. This year, a total of 51 railway operators and companies related to Haneda and Narita airports are participating in the campaign.

A public relations official at East Japan Railway Co., one of the participating companies, said: "The number of accidents decreases during the campaign period but the practice of keeping one side open is strongly rooted. We'd like to positively appeal to people to change the practice."

Meanwhile, the rule of keeping one step empty behind each person taking an escalator is spreading.

The rule was established from a lesson learned from an escalator accident at Tokyo Big Sight, a major exhibition hall in Tokyo's Koto Ward, in August 2008. At that time, about 50 people toppled over and 10 of them were injured in the accident when a major event for manga enthusiasts was being held. An ascending escalator about 30 meters long, linking the first and fourth floors of the building, suddenly stopped and began to slide backward, causing about 50 people to topple over.

An accident investigation committee at the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry announced its report on the accident in January this year, attributing the accident to improper maintenance. However, it is also believed that the escalator became overloaded with people at the time of the accident. Tokyo Big Sight began playing recorded announcements the month following the accident in Japanese and English urging people using escalators to keep one empty step between themselves and the person ahead for safety.

About 15 million people visit Tokyo Big Sight annually, and there are 38 escalators in the facility. A public relations official the facility stressed the effect of the announcement, saying, "As fewer people now stand on the very next step after the person ahead of them, safety has improved."

Origin of escalator etiquette placed in WWII London

A leading theory has it that the origin of the practice of "keeping to one side" of an escalator dates back to London during World War II.

According to Masakazu Toki, professor of cultural anthropology at Edogawa University, the practice of keeping to the right side of the escalator began in London around 1944 to keep the left side open for people in a hurry.

This practice spread in Japan from Hankyu Umeda Station in Osaka in 1967 when the station building was relocated. To this day, people in Osaka follow London's "keeping to the right side" of the escalator rule.

In Tokyo the practice of "keeping to the left side" began to spread near the end of the 1980s. This practice is said to have begun at Shin-Ochanomizu Station on the Chiyoda subway line. At the time of its opening in 1969, the escalator at this station was the longest underground escalator in Japan, measuring 41 meters. However, there are also stories of people keeping to the left side of the escalator at Tokyo Station and Shimbashi Station around the same time.

"It is still unclear why we keep to different sides of the escalator in Osaka and in Tokyo, but as globalisation advanced, perhaps the consciousness that we must learn foreign etiquette led people to start keeping to one side," Toki said.