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Why Is Japan So Clean?

August 3rd, 2019 Culture & History

 

Why is Japan So Clean?

The Japanese are undoubtedly some of the most polite people in the world. Japan’s Samurai Blue fans made headlines after cleaning up stadiums at the 2018 World Cup (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44492611). Japanese are taught to respect others and public spaces from a young age, and this expectation is reinforced throughout Japanese culture in schools, language and elsewhere. 


Japanese fans cleaning up at the World Cup. Credit: Vikesh Shet

 

Omotenashi

The underlying principle of Japanese hospitality and politeness is omotenashi. “Omote” means surface or exterior, and “nashi” means nothing. Acting with omotenashi means providing every service wholeheartedly and transparently. This spirit of Japanese hospitality is rooted in sado, the tea ceremony, in which the tea master faces his or her guests while preparing the tea. Sen no Rikyu, the tea master who inspired Hotel Zen Tokyo, helped define the concept with the musing “Though you wipe your hands and brush off the dust and dirt from the vessels, what is the use of all this fuss if the heart is still impure?” 


Print by Yoshu Chikanobu

 

The spirit of omotenashi is shown in various ways. All workers at Japanese stores and restaurants greet the arrival of customers with a cheerful “Welcome!” Great care is taken to meticulously wrap purchases for customers. 

Omotenashi is not just about providing the customer with good service; there is an expectation of mutual respect. Unlike in the United States, mutual respect and appreciation is not manifested in the form of tips. Critical to omotenashi is the absence of expecting anything in return for your services. One example of mutual respect is the expectation that people not wear heavy perfume or cologne in Japanese restaurants, particularly restaurants specializing in delicate cuisine like sushi. The perfume scent not only inhibits your ability to experience the subtleties of the dish, it negatively affects those around you.

At the root of Japanese politeness and cleanliness is the consideration of others. 

 

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The publication of Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2015) was an international bestseller that brought further attention to the Japanese eye for tidiness. Kondo’s “KonMarie method” takes a holistic attitude towards tidying with the idea that items that no longer bring joy ought to be given the opportunity to discover a more appreciative owner. Meanwhile, decluttering your space will lend you clarity transcending all aspects of your life. Kondo’s approach is strongly rooted in Japanese culture and spirituality, and likely influenced by her years working at a Shinto shrine. 

Buddhism and Shintoism coexist in Japan organically. Though Buddhist sects and Shinto shrines historically had spouts of power struggles, no civil war was ever fought for religious reasons. In Japan, most people integrate aspects of both forms of spiritual guidance into their lives. The common relationship between the two is captured by the saying “Marry Shinto, die Buddhist,” referring to most people’s preferences for Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals. Both Buddhism and Shintoism caution against the dangers of materialism while emphasizing cleanliness and the souls of our surroundings. Shintoism in particular holds that every creature, plant and object has a soul. The Japanese principle of respecting your possessions and appreciating their artistry/functionality without having too much, though challenged by postwar consumerism, informs both Marie Kondo’s tidying method and the Japanese attitude towards cleanliness. 


'Omotenashi' on board

Bullet Trains are cleaned in 7 minutes. Credit: JR East Tessei Co.  



Importance of Cleanliness: Japanese Hygiene

The importance of cleanliness in Japan is due to expectations set from a young age and Shinto ideas about purity. Contemporary Shintoism is a set of guiding beliefs and rituals native to Japan without written scriptures or strict formal doctrines. In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religions, Toropov and Father Buckles characterize Shintoism’s emphasis on cleanliness in the following manner: “In the West, there is a saying that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness,’ but the Japanese conception may be closer to ‘cleanliness is not distinct from godliness.’ Because the spirits are regarded as holding disorder and slovenliness in high disdain, a deep concern with bathing, personal cleanliness and order takes on great importance in Shintoism.”  Purity is synonymous with goodness and divinity while impurity is interchangeable with sin. 

The emphasis on cleanliness is reinforced by the rituals of Japanese holidays. In Japan, Shōgatsu (正月 the New Year) is the most important holiday of the year. In addition to eating soba noodles for long life and watching public broadcaster NHK’s singing shows, cleaning the house and bathing is customary. Cleansing the house and yourself on New Year’s Eve is critical as it allows people to spend the final hours of the year relaxing with their families and start the new year with a clean slate. 

Setsubun (節分), celebrated on February 3rd as the day before the beginning of spring, also involves cleaning. Families clean the house together, and then a family member dresses up as an Oni (demon or ogre). The Oni is pelted with roasted soybeans and chased out of the house while the children chant “Demons out! Luck in!”  (鬼は外! 福は内! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!) to help with further purification of the home in preparation for spring.  

Obon, the Japanese Festival of the Dead, is another very important Japanese Buddhist holiday. Obon typically begins on August 13th and ends August 15th, though the start date and duration depend on the region. On the first day of Obon, families clean their houses, prepare food offerings for their ancestors called ozen (お膳), and set up mukaebi (迎え火), paper lanterns to guide ancestors home. Further underscoring the importance of ritual cleaning, people often visit the graves of the family ancestors to clean them during New Year’s and Obon in a custom called ohakamairi (御墓参). 

The value of cleanliness is reinforced by Japanese spiritual/religious customs. Almost all significant holidays involve family members cleaning the home together. The shared accountability of ritual house cleaning gives all family members a sense of responsibility and helps condition children. 

 

School Osoji (お掃除 Cleaning)

Japanese schools set an expectation of respect for public spaces and those who maintain them early on. From first grade through high school, most Japanese students help with cleaning the school facilities. Children are divided into han (small groups) which are then assigned a classroom, hallway, bathroom, etc. to clean. The frequency of cleaning can range from a few days a week to daily, but often is only 10-20 minutes. Schools do not depend on the students for maintenance and have full-time janitors; the osoji time is meant to be more habit-forming than practical. Some schools also arrange for students to do chiiki seiso (neighborhood cleanup) a couple of times a year, taking brooms and dustpans to go pick up trash around the neighborhood of the school. 

 

 

Japanese students cleaning their school. Credit: Japan Info

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