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A Japanese campaign wants to rewrite the global rules of escalator etiquette

People ride the escalator at the Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Aug. 12. (Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg News)

What is the correct etiquette when on an escalator? Should you walk up the elevator to help quicken everyone's journey, or remain still to keep everything orderly? If you do stand still, should it be on the left or on the right of the escalator? Some readers probably have some strong views on this matter. Recently, officials in Japan have been pushing for a set of rules governing escalator use in the country that will sound like heresy to many around the world.

Do not walk.

Stand on either side.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reports that 51 railway operators and airport-related companies have banded together to support the no-walk campaign. “The number of accidents decreases during the campaign period but the practice of keeping one side open is strongly rooted," a public relations official at East Japan Railway Co. explained to the newspaper. "We’d like to positively appeal to people to change the practice.”

“It’s not necessary to leave one side open," an official from the Japan Elevator Association, a body of elevator and escalator manufacturers, added. "There are some people who have an arm or a hand that is incapable of functioning and have difficulty keeping a specific side open.” The campaign also calls for elevator riders to leave one step between them and the rider before them.

It's true that the practice of keeping one side of the escalator open for people wishing to walk has become common in Japan, but it isn't uniformly observed nationwide. In Tokyo and most other places in the country, people stand to the left to let others pass on the right; in Osaka, they tend to stay on the right. Around the world, however, most countries, if they favor a side, seem to favor standing on the right and walking on the left (Australia is a notable rogue nation).

Britain appears to have been the first nation to promote the idea of standing on the right. Exactly why is unclear. It may have been because of the country's practice of driving on the left-hand side, but in 2009 the BBC posited another theory: In the early part of the 20th century, escalators in the London Underground had a diagonal step-off point "clearly meant for the right foot first so standing on the right made sense." The idea has since spread around the world, including in the United States, Germany and Taiwan.

Supporters of walking on the escalator are often passionate about its efficiency. “I don’t have anything in common with people who stand on escalators,” billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg told the New York Times last year. “I always walk around them — why waste time? You have eternity to rest when you die.”

In Japan, however, the worry is that walking on the escalator could increase your chances of dying. Earlier this year, Japan's Consumer Affairs Agency warned that 3,865 people in Tokyo alone had required hospital treatment for injuries suffered on escalators from 2011 to 2013. A guide on the Web site of the Japan Elevator Association lists a number of reasons for not walking, which include the risk of slipping or falling because you are unbalanced. "There is a possibility of death or serious injury," the guide notes.

If death by escalator sounds hyperbolic, cast your mind back a few months to the shocking footage of a mother being crushed to death riding an escalator in a shopping mall in China's Hubei province. While that incident appears to have been a freak accident, foreigners have often noted a lack of Chinese escalator etiquette. Whether the Japanese campaign will work, however, remains to be seen: After a similar campaign last year, the Wall Street Journal noted that escalator riders in Japan still seemed to be standing to one side.

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