The scale of cleanliness differs from society to society on this earth for a variety of reasons. Environmental factors along with the history of an entire country can dictate whether that nation is predisposed to have a culture obsessed with hygiene or one that is a little more relaxed about it. On the other hand, it may also be a matter of rules and discipline that reinforce the act of cleaning which makes the society avoid trashing and littering public spaces.
In Japan, cleanliness is a part of life, and it is ingrained in the country’s cultural fabric. From cleansing their personal bodies, configuring the architecture of their houses to keep dirt out, the clothes they wear, to their daily routines and actions – the Japanese people are responsible for some of the cleanest cities in the world. It becomes something that is looked after as a community or the public, instead of something that is overseen by a janitor or designated cleaner.
The Link Between Japan and Cleanliness
There are a plethora of reasons as to why Japanese culture advocates such clean habits. It’s a combination of their religion and societal beliefs, the environment that they live in, and their past experiences with war and disease. Each of these factors has led to preventive measures to make sure that
Environmental Factors, Shintoism, Buddhism, and More
While Japan does have colder areas, particularly in the northern Hokkaido parts, most of the archipelago falls under the humid subtropical climate zone, which has a huge impact on life. This means that food spoils easily, spores and mold easily pop up in houses, people sweat much more, and mud and dirt easily cling to anything and everything. Because of cases such as food poisoning, infections spread by parasites and bacteria, one must be extra careful by washing oneself rigorously, along with making sure one’s dwelling space is clean.
Another factor to note is that Japan tends to endure many, many strong earthquakes, as well as tsunamis. Having a messy living space or area can be deadly when an earthquake strikes, as objects can fall or fly out of their respective places and potentially because for injury and can be swept away by a tsunami. Keeping tidy creates a limit the potential for further problems and destruction when natural disasters strike.
Beliefs and Beyond
And then there’s the fact that both Shintoism and Buddhism – which have both been Japan’s main religions for over a thousand years – associate purity with cleanliness and find that bathing can be a metaphor for ridding oneself of evil, which is emblematically linked to dirt. Before entering the Shinto shrine, for example, one must head to the water pavilion or “temizuya” to perform “misogi”, which is a quick and symbolic ritual of purifying one’s heart, body, and mind before presenting him or herself to the gods or “kami”, to receive a blessing.
To perform misogi, all you need to do is pick up the ladle, scooping enough water, and rinsing your left hand. With your left hand, you do the same and rinse your right hand (using the same initial scoop of water). After, you must tip some water into your mouth without the ladle touching your lips. After you’re done, rinse the ladle with the remaining water inside.
Also, the Shinto religion is very much connected to nature, as it is very much akin to worshipping nature itself (animism). Worshiping nature is not limited to the environment, as this includes taking care of yourself and making sure you’re clean (thus the water purification) and making sure you honor your surroundings, both inanimate and animate.
Buddhism, on the other hand, endorses being holistic, which means if you clean yourself physically, it also somewhat cleanses you mentally, spiritually, and emotionally as well. In this religion, when you manifest something such as cleanliness, it also attracts pure and fresh energy, essentially allowing you to start anew each day.
Nothing New About Keeping Clean
This is no recent phenomenon, however, as their tendency for the Japanese to clean themselves and their environments have been noticed as far back as 3rd century AD, where Chinese historians observed that the Japanese society was keener than average when it came to keeping dirt away. This didn’t change much, post a thousand years, when Europeans came to trade, as 16th-century texts from the west speak of the country’s extraordinary fascination with washing up.
Even now, during modern times, you will notice Japan’s peculiar drive to keep clean with both new and old trends. For example, there are “onsen” or public bathhouses where you can go and be rejuvenated with a hot soak in Sulphur water, the massive Japanese production (and sometimes even local obsession) with cleaning products, soaps, and washes, and practices of “oosouji”, where everyone cleans up their houses and gets rid of things they don’t need right before the new year starts. One interesting practice that keeps the discipline of cleaning alive is making it obligatory for each student to clean up their own schools; an act called “o-soji”.
Living in A Country Where Students Clean Their Own School
While there is a rumor circulating that Japanese schools do not hire staff for maintenance and cleaning, this rumor is false. There are two categories; teaching staff, and those who are hired to do other non-teaching duties including maintenance and a more intensive cleaning of the school. In Japanese, they call this category of staff “Shuji”. A Shuji is not a teacher; a Shuji usually helps the children with other tasks, one example is helping them safely cross the street. Or institutions could hire custodians specifically, who in Japanese is referred to as “yomuin”.
Despite this rumor being quashed, it does not take away from the fact that the kids contribute a lot to why schools in Japan are spic and span. At the same time, these institutions hire much fewer yomuin or Shuji. For a school with 800 students, for example, four yomuin would be good enough to work throughout the entire school because of the help of the kids.
Once children begin first grade of education, they are taught to clean up after themselves and are given rotating jobs to tidy up their studying spaces. Children as young as 6 years old learn how to move furniture, dust, sweep, and mop (with rags) as a class, teaching them a valuable lesson about community teamwork, and the importance of being responsible for the mess one makes.
To organize who cleans what, classrooms can be tasked to clean specific places in schools, such as an area of the library or computer room to split the obligation. Children are subdivided into more groups or “han” to further divide tasks.
Making It Fun for Kids
Each person is usually tasked to bring rags on their first day of school, which – during cleaning time - they place on the floor and run across the room while wiping; both hands firmly holding the rag. With many kids doing this at once, the cleaning process becomes fun, fulfilling, and fast. Fun and upbeat music are played as the kids clean to raise spirits and enthusiasm, and appreciation for the duty. The older the students are, the more they form different efficient techniques to wipe and clean.
As for keeping the dirt out, it helps a lot that kids and staff wear specific shoes (“uwabaki”) that are used only specifically inside the school premises and not brought out, so that dust, debris, and dirt from the outside are not brought in.
The Young and Younger
A part of this practice that some find endearing is the custom of 6th graders help 1st graders clean up their rooms more thoroughly. This way, the interaction between older and younger kids offers good examples for the younger batch to follow. It also allows them to socialize with their more senior schoolmates, prodding the middle-schoolers to be better examples – especially kids who have no older brothers or sisters.
This practice of students cleaning up their own schools reaches the oldest of students, as 17-year-olds take on harder jobs, such as cleaning the bathrooms. Because responsibilities cycle, no one is stuck with a particularly difficult task such as scrubbing toilet bowls, as everyone gets a chance at certain responsibilities, whether that’s sweeping the hallway or wiping down mirrors and faucets.
The Benefits of Cleaning Your Own School
Because the kids realize what it takes to clean up, they feel like they should be more careful with and respectful of the spaces they occupy – and this extends outside of the classroom, and way into their home space, or when they begin working. Students end up carrying the idea of respecting space wherever they go. They also realize that everyone stands on equal grounds to clean, no matter if they speak English, Japanese, or how rich or smart they are, giving everyone a sense of camaraderie in bettering their community.
It also lessens the costs of hiring others to clean up after the kids, with four custodians for 800 kids being very reasonable to maintain. Bugs and other pests are less likely to thrive in such clean conditions, keeping the spreading of illnesses, germs, and bacteria at a minimum. Aside from cleaning up after themselves, Japanese students are also tasked to do cafeteria duty, serving others (and themselves) lunch.
No Praise for Dirty Jobs
Many of these students do their tasks without question as they are obligatory, and do not think it’s a big deal that they are tasked to clean their own surroundings. Some of them even enjoy it and go beyond what’s required just to make sure their spaces are clean and ok. They follow strict schedules solely dedicated to cleaning up, and these usually last for about 10 to 20 minutes, most often after lunch, or before dismissal.
Another time that kids come together to do a more serious and major job of cleaning is at the end of every semester. This isn’t a quick 20-minute cleaning period. Instead, kids take time to really revamp their space. They call this “big cleaning” or osoji, without the hyphen. In other countries and schools, the practice of o-soji is viewed as an impressive and disciplined tidying system.
Then again. Some schools in Japan take o-soji more seriously than others, sometimes modifying tasks to be simpler for students. Sadly, not all schools in Japan adhere to the practice of o-soji. Some schools don’t let their students deal with cleaning the toilets, while some Japanese private schools completely don’t practice o-soji at all.
Do Korean Students Clean Their Own Schools?
The Japanese are not the only ones who have the practice of cleaning up their schools. Although it’s less advertised, many schools in South Korea have the same practice as o-soji. Just as it is in some schools in Japan, South Korean students don’t necessarily take on the big cleaning duties such as bathrooms, but they do have to sweep, mop, scrub the floors/surfaces, as well as take out the trash.
Making Waves in the West: Student-Led Cleaning in Tennessee’s Brentwood Academy
Though this wouldn’t be warranted for the news report in both Japan and Korea, in the U.S., an American private preparatory school called Brentwood Academy based in Tennessee took on the o-soji practice, making sure that students used 10 minutes of their time every day to clean up – and it sure made the news. Although the practice was met with good results in building character, it has also been met with authorities (and possibly more than one parent) comparing it to “child labor”, obligating the kid to work instead of study.
This presents a stark difference compared to that of students from Korea and Japan – but who is right? Perhaps whichever yields the most responsible and caring students who are fit to take care of their surroundings. For now, it looks like o-soji is an excellent practice to implement.