When Traffic Patterns Switched Overnight This Prefecture Was Ready

July 30, 1978

It was a day of many logistical challenges and a large number of confused motorists in the southernmost section of Japan, as Okinawa Prefecture (one of the nation’s 47 main administrative divisions) officially switched its traffic patterns from driving on the right-hand side of the road back to driving on the left-hand side. This change took effect starting at six o’clock that Sunday morning.

Okinawa had originally required driving on the left-hand side just like the rest of Japan. However, when the prefecture was under the control of American occupational forces towards the end of World War II, everyone was made to drive on the right-hand side instead. The plans to switch back to the left-hand side began in earnest when Okinawa reverted to Japan in 1972 and there was a consequent need to comply with the stipulation of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic that each nation have a uniform system within its boundaries for bidirectional travel.

In readying Okinawa for the switch in traffic patterns, approximately 2,500 workers replaced 350 traffic lights and 40,000 road signs throughout the prefecture. The conversion process also entailed relocating bus stops, replacing 1,000 buses and 5,000 taxis, and outfitting 300,000 vehicles with headlights that aimed to the left instead of the right. In addition, a total of 2,000 Okinawa policemen – aided by 2,800 others from elsewhere in Japan – were on hand during the initial changeover to maintain order. “This is a big project,” noted Choichi Miyagi, chief of the Okinawa Prefectural Switchover Task Force, in a somewhat understated manner.

Despite all of the advanced planning and real-time monitoring efforts that went into this major transition, there were still plenty of mix-ups on the roadways and more than a few traffic accidents throughout Okinawa. Yu Hirachi, a native of Ishigaki-jima (one of the major islands comprising Okinawa Prefecture), later described the struggles of her own parents during this widespread readjustment in driving habits. “Chaos and fender-benders,” she recalled.

This region of Japan was one of the few places within the past half-century to undergo a right-to-left traffic switch. The switch in Okinawa was also the first large-scale conversion of its kind since Sweden switched from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right-hand side in September 1967.

About two months after the day on which Okinawa’s motorists began their switch to driving again on the left side of the road, a stone memorial was set up on Ishigaki-jima to commemorate the date. The three-foot (0.9-meter)-high stone is called the 730 Monument. It is flanked on both sides by shisa lion-dog statues, which are symbols of good luck in this region of Japan. A stylized red, white, and blue logo featuring a traffic arrow was carved and painted into the 730 Monument to represent the shift from right-to-left-hand driving. In the time since its debut, this memorial has become a popular tourist attraction.

For more information on the return to driving on the left side of the road in Okinawa Prefecture of Japan, please check out http://rca.open.ed.jp/web_e/history/story/epoch5/shinsei_up/up03.html and the 5 July 1978 New York Times article “U-Turn for Okinawa” at https://www.nytimes.com/1978/07/05/archives/uturn-for-okinawa-from-righthand-driving-to-left-extra-policemen.html.

Additional information on the 730 Monument is available at https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/730-monument.

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