A lot of things baffled when I attended a Japanese school for the first time at the age of 14. Lot’s of things baffled me, but the custom of soji — or cleaning — of the classroom and school buildings everyday after the last bell, seemed outrageous.
Each student had his or her own zokin (washrag), hand-stitched by themselves, hanging from little hooks at the back of the classroom and used to wipe the desks and windows. Mops, buckets and brooms were kept in the corner for polishing the floors.
At the end of every term, the cleaning became a major operation known as o-soji (the great cleaning) and took up several hours. Sometimes I tried to get my fellow cleaning comrades to stage a labor uprising. Why didn’t the school have janitors (or vacuum cleaners) for these tasks, I would ask, while wringing a cold, dirty zokin in a concrete sink. I mean, shouldn’t we like, get paid for our labor? But in vain. No one questioned the chores — they were part of our education. We were supposed to feel rewarded for acquiring the skills and virtues of seiketsu (cleanliness).
For many Japanese men the school practice of soji was be the last time they ever wielded a broom. At home, their mothers did the cleaning and upon marriage their wives took on the bulk of kaji (household chores).
For women, it was a different story. The school soji was a prelude to the rest of their lives, a large chunk of which was spent maintaining the home. In Kyoto, a city that is renowned for spanking clean and well-kept homes, the custom of teaching women to marry the house and not the man, still holds. “Iye wa onna no takara (The house is a woman’s treasure),” they say. The logic is that men are all the same and bound to disappoint, but a house will never betray you.
This kind of mind-set has spawned an entire culture based on housework. Walk into any bookstore and you’ll see whole shelves dedicated to the subject of cleaning. Whole chapters debate on the best way to tackle the mizumawari (around the faucets and pipes) as well as the tricky himawari (around the gas rings or other areas that emit heat). There are those who endorse the doitsu-shiki (German-style) approach to cleaning (emphasis on eco-detergents and baking soda).
There are those who think we should learn from the Swedes (vinegar on cotton swabs works wonders on pots and pans). Then there are those who say that washiki (traditional Japanese ways) are the best, especially when it comes to polishing toilets on one’s knees. Not content to just read about it, many women also attend weekend lectures on household maintenance, given by celebrity-status karizuma shufu (charisma housewives). These speakers will tell the audience like it is: anyone who dare uses disposable kagaku zokin (chemical wipes) on their precious homes instead of furumomen (old cotton) should be ashamed. “Nihon no onna jya naidesu-yo! (You’re not fit to be called Japanese women!)” yelled out one formidable lady to her cowering listeners.
Despite all this (or because of it), few Japanese women revel in housework. On the contrary, they complain and are constantly on the lookout for high-tech short-cuts, which is why Japan is a kaden rikkoku (“nation built on appliance sales”).
But it never occurs to them to ditch everything and hire outside help. The act of soji nourishes the soul — the more a woman does it, the closer she gets to heaven. Housework is not shigoto (a job), exchangeable for cash, but a michi (way) that ultimately leads to self-knowledge and inner peace.