Both general publics and elites have long used labels of left and right as cues for political communication and vote choice in Western democracies. This study examines the utility of these spatial semantics as means of encapsulating major political cleavages in East Asian democracies. Through analysis of public opinion surveys, we investigate the influence of organizational affiliation; views on socio-economic, religious, and ‘new politics’ issues, as well as attitudes toward the political system, as anchors of public understanding of the left–right dimension in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Patterns found in these countries are compared with two ‘Western’ nations in the region, Australia and New Zealand. Results show that citizens’ left–right positions in Japan and the Australasian countries are more clearly structured by well-defined cleavages, such as socio-economic issues and post-materialism, and that parties in these countries compete on the basis of clearer ideological profiles. In contrast, despite high rates of cognition of the left–right scale in South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, left–right orientations are less firmly anchored in attitudes and policy preferences. These differences in publics’ level of ideological conceptualization are likely related to party system development and democratic experience.