Remembering Reversion and Driving on the Right Side, or is it the Left?
When Okinawa was returned to Japan on May 15th, 1972, part of the package was an entirely new set of challenges that needed to be met. For Okinawans, the joy of being returned to the homeland and the challenges that came with it was not an unmixed blessing. One major challenge was switching from U.S. traffic laws and driving on the right side of the road, to existing Japanese law and driving on the left. Switching the roadways on July 30th, 1978 was officially dubbed the Nanasanmaru Campaign (nana = 7, san = 3, maru = 0).
This particular problem took a lot in both time and planning as the entirety of Okinawa Prefecture would have to convert traffic lights, road signs, and lane markings literally overnight. Not to mention the time drivers would need to adapt and get their bearings (in the beginning, accidents were a frequent occurrence). Altogether, from reversion in May 1972 to July 1978, the switch took over six years to plan and complete.
At 10pm on the night of July 29th, 1978, all traffic—with the exception of emergency vehicles—was barred from public roads as police and road crews spent the next eight hours preparing for the switch. This included swapping traffic signals, replacing roads signs, moving bus stops and taxi stands, replacing some 1,000 buses and 5,000 taxis, and changing headlights that pointed left instead of right on over 300,000 vehicles. Purchasing all new buses to service passengers on the new roadways was especially costly for bus companies. The story is so famous among Okinawans that any old bus still in service is referred to as a 730 (nana-san-maru) bus.
All told, the Japanese government spent roughly $150 million to cover the conversion costs, and the United States spent another half a million for converting base roadways. Finally, at 6am on July 30th, the roads were reopened and traffic resumed on the left side. Because Okinawa is one of the few places to have made the switch from driving on the right to the left, July 30th is a date remembered island-wide and holds a special place in the hearts of many Okinawans.
Thirty-nine years after the switch most of the original 730 buses have been decommissioned and replaced with newer, more fuel efficient models. Yet, two companies—Toyo Bus Company and Okinawa Bus Company—still rolls out an original 730 bus for limited service on the limited days and anniversary of July 30th.