Japan is a country that is known for its cleanliness – both in terms of each individual person, his/her belongings, and home. Their dedication to keeping neat and tidy is nothing new – this aspect of their culture has been observed for the past few centuries. Travelers who had visited the country long ago would even take notice of this.
A Quick History of Cleanliness in Japan
There is usually a reason for why a cultural habit is developed. For Japan, cleanliness initially became a widespread habit partly because of Shinto and Buddhist practices. Deities do not take kindly to dirt and disorganized surroundings, so when you visit a shrine, you will have to wash before coming in. You must be physically clean to be presentable to the kami (the word for Shinto god) to please it and to receive its good wills.
As for Buddhism, because it is a holistic religion, one must take one’s physical cleanliness seriously, as this has an effect on the mind and emotions as well. Buddhists believe that when you are clean yourself, you will find it easier to be at peace in all other aspects as well. For either religion, outward cleanliness is also a metaphor for what you want to represent and attract – so clean surroundings could essentially mean you’re starting anew.
Combine those religions with past trials and epidemics that plagued Japan especially after the war, then add the humid weather the country deals with (thus the easy breeding of germs and diseases), the experience of having gone through nuclear radiation, as well as rampant earthquakes – and along the coast – tsunamis, the Japanese have learned the importance of keeping themselves and their environment clean to better their overall quality of life.
Modern Times, Same Practices
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and it is clear that not much has changed, as if you visit even just Tokyo, you’ll notice that it is not encouraged for one to eat standing up in public places that aren’t meant for eating, as that indicates the possibility of leaving a piece of trash behind or a bite of food scattered. You’re also encouraged to keep your trash with you to throw away at home. Not to mention the presence (and popular use of) bathhouses, a remarkable public waste system, and a multitude of hygiene products (detergents and body washes) readily available at any drugstore or supermarket.
Aside from being obvious in its physical presences, cleanliness also has a place in tradition, ritual, and symbolism in the Japanese - and that is in the observance of Oosouji.
What is the Meaning of Oosouji?
Oosouji, written in Japanese as “大掃除”, is a tradition practiced by the Japanese wherein a family or individual cleans up his, her, or their home before New Year’s Eve as a way of welcoming the incoming year with a clean slate; both literally and symbolically. Often compared to the western idea of spring cleaning, the word “Oosouji” actually comes from two different Japanese words; with “oo” meaning “big”, and “souji” pertaining to “cleaning”. Oosouji can be literally translated into English as “big cleaning”, as it calls for a total de-cluttering of one’s space.
Oosouji As A Part of Japanese Culture
While there are obvious benefits to keeping your place tidy, and Japanese culture is clear on its fixation with cleanliness, Oosouji is rooted to deeper philosophies that extend beyond the physical realm, into the emotional, mental, and spiritual realms.
To the Japanese, it is bad luck to bring “old business” into the new year. For example, if you have bills (both paid and unpaid) hanging around, receipts, scattered books, and other possessions in a state of general disarray, you’d best to throw away, put away, or organize what you can, if you don’t want last year’s problems and impure influences to continue following you.
In the case of Oosouji, the cleaner, the better. So, if you can set every inch of the spaces you occupy to a sparkling finish, the better the start of your new year will be. You will be able to clearly plan things and move on from difficulties that plagued you, as well as get over any bad habits picked up in the past.
Paying Dues to Deities
As earlier mentioned, kami love a clean house and find clutter irritating. Note that kami are responsible for giving blessings and good luck, so it’s crucial to impress them the proper way, during the correct occasion. Thus, practicing Oosouji is also a way of being respectful to the deities.
One particular deity, Toshigami (written in Japanese as “年神”), is responsible for bringing in the new year, as “Toshi” means “year”, and “kami” is “god”. Because Toshigami can also embody the spirits of one’s ancestors, it is thought to be extra impolite and inconsiderate to let this kami witness a state of disarray in one’s dwelling place. Think of it as tidying up your place as a means of respect to parents and relatives who will be visiting.
Tips for Cleaning During Oosouji
It isn’t only your house that should be clean when the new year begins. Other places, such as your workspace, your school locker, and table are also on the list of spots to be cleaned. In addition, while you need to move some furniture and dust all those hard-to-reach places, it is considered as part of Oosouji to make sure things work again. How? Add batteries to a remote that’s been drained, change that lightbulb that you’ve been putting off for weeks.
There are smarter (and auspicious) ways to go by cleaning up for Oosouji, and here are some of them.
Declutter First - Prepare Boxes to Sort Out
Before bringing out the broom, duster, and mop out, remove extra trash, objects, and furniture that you no longer need or want. Keep boxes with DIY labels like “throw” “keep” “sell” and “donate”. If you feel an item no longer brings joy to you or your family, or if you're tired of its design, try your best to either sell or donate it. As for clothes, a good rule of thumb to let go of something is whether or not you’ve worn or used the item in the past 6 months.
Always keep minimalism in mind when you sort through and decide on your possessions. Once you’re done with this process, keep the boxes neatly tucked away, neatly reorganize the items left in “keep”, and immediately bring out the “throw” box to properly dispose of.
Let the Kids Help Out
If you have little ones in the house or at school, let them practice Oosouji with you in their own ways by cleaning up their own rooms and belongings, choosing which toys or books to donate, and broken things to get rid of. Once they’re done cleaning their respective rooms, they can help you out with the rest of the house by doing small favors – depending on their age. This passes on the tradition to them, while instilling the importance and lessons that come with cleanliness.
Receive One, Release Two
As the gift-giving season fades, and the number of items you’ve received piles up in your house, an easy way to let go of things you don’t need anymore is to throw or give away two similar possessions (or non-similar, up to you) of what you received during Christmas. If you received a keychain, for instance, give away, throw, or sell two of your old keychains.
Gifts that were given to you for the sake of politeness are also things you should sell or donate. Toss them in the “donate” or “sell” box, or re-gift them to someone who may appreciate the item more than you.
Work from First to Last, Top to Bottom
When you get down to the dirty work, start the first room (the one that contains the entrance), and work on dusting the top or ceiling first (debris and dust can fall to the walls and floor, which you can clean later) then wiping windows and walls, and sweeping/mopping floors, and vacuuming rugs. Do this in a clockwise rotation. Do the same for the other rooms that follow, so you have a systemized way to go about the cleaning.
Scrub Away Stains
Whether that stain is on your dress, wall, sofa, or sink – try your best to remove it, as this is still something negative that you would not want to keep as you end the year. Have all your clothes laundered or dry cleaned too (be ready to apologize to the dry cleaner if he notices your collection of stains).
When Do Most People Observe Oosouji in Japan?
Most people dedicate the 28th of December to cleaning their houses, but this can extend for an entire week; from December 25 onwards. It’s wisest that by the 31st of December, your space/spaces is/are already clean enough to embrace the new year.
The date of completing Oosouji is important to follow and must not be put off as something that can be accomplished on the 1st or 2nd of January. You have to make sure that everything is neat and clean before the new year for the possibility of the benefits of the belief to apply to you. If your place is still a mess by the time the new year arrives, it’s a little too late to catch up – that is, for the sake of reaping the benefits of the belief.
However, you don’t have to wait until Oosouji to start sorting out clutter. Any time of the year is always a good time to start the habit of neatness, minimalism, and simplicity. That way, by the time Oosouji comes, you don’t have to go through piles of what could have stacked up throughout the year.
It May Be A Superstition – But It Has Merit, Too
Though westerners may deem Oosouji as nothing but a superstition, there are many benefits that come with cleaning up one’s surroundings. On a physical sense, if you don’t regularly sanitize your surfaces, germs can multiply at an alarming rate and can give bacterial infections if these were to come in contact with an open wound, or if accidentally ingested.
You are also less likely to experience allergies if you are allergic to dust, and will be able to breathe better, which – in your bedroom – leads to sleeping better. Making sure your floor is clear of clutter also decreases your chance of injuries.
On an emotional level, living in a clean environment lowers your stress levels, lets you focus better, and also gives you a sense of control as you clean up, making you less likely to get angry. So, what are you waiting for? Practice Oosouji this December.