The clock struck 1:25 p.m., and six fifth-graders at Minami Elementary School in Yokohama headed for lavatories carrying brushes, mops, dustpans and toilet paper.
The three boys and three girls, each in a separate lavatory, scrubbed the toilets, mopped the floors and refilled the toilet paper holders, wrapping up their task with a review session at 1:45 p.m.
They appear used to the chore that six months earlier they never would have expected to perform.
“I wasn’t happy about (toilet cleaning) at the beginning. But once I started, it was fun,” said Riku Motoki, 11.
Minami Elementary School is one of the 13 model schools where the Yokohama board of education for the first time in some 30 years is tasking students with cleaning the lavatories. The edict will take effect at all of the city’s 500 public elementary, junior high and high schools in April.
Muneaki Saito of the board of education said giving students this chore was decided in a 2006 educational reform conference seeking to instill a collective public spirit at a time when Yokohama schools were experiencing increasing vandalism and other property damage.
People in their 30s and older may remember cleaning their school lavatories in Yokohama. But in 1985, the city assigned the task to janitors.
Despite the efforts of janitors, however, the lavatories increasingly accumulated garbage and graffiti.
According to Susumu Degawa, principal of Minami Elementary School, the city’s about-face coincided with the desires of his student body. Hence a student committee last December kicked off “Operation Toilet Cleanup.”
“I was nervous about the parents’ reaction at first. A few raised concerns about viral infections. But the majority praised our new measure. Some were even surprised we hadn’t been doing this already,” Deguchi said.
The initial cleanup was performed only by sixth-graders armed with masks and gloves. In June, the school doctor said protective gear wasn’t necessary.
“We decided instead to strengthen the children’s immune systems by encouraging them to wash their hands and gargle,” health teacher Nobuko Kusumoto said.
Fifth-graders joined their older counterparts in June and have been doing their share of scrubbing the school’s seven lavatories.
“I didn’t care even if I made a mess before. But after watching the sixth-graders clean our bathrooms, I now try to keep them clean and work just as hard,” said Naoya Masuda, 11.
A school survey reflects this change in attitude: 88 percent of the children from the third through sixth grades responded that they have been making a more conscious effort to keep lavatories clean. Although 7 percent of the fifth- and sixth-graders seemed cool to the task, more children responded that the chore made them feel good, including those who replied that working for the sake of others was their responsibility, and that performing such chores was actually “cool.”
In addition, 49 percent of the third- and fourth-graders answered “I appreciate (the older students) working for us,” and another 44 percent said, “I will also work hard when it’s my turn.”
While Yokohama believes it can succeed in expanding this volunteer effort to all of its schools next year, other Kanagawa Prefecture municipalities are pursuing different goals.
Hiratsuka’s elementary and junior high schools rely on janitors and contractors for sanitary chores, according to the board of education. Kawasaki employs daily contractors for elementary schools and monthly ones for junior high schools, and asks students to fill any gaps.
While Yokohama may seem unique in its tasking of lavatory cleanup chores to children, in reality most public schools nationwide consider this task a responsibility of students. The School Toilet Study Group, established by six toilet-affiliated companies, reported that 62 percent of all elementary schools and 78 percent of junior high schools have their students clean the lavatories, according to a survey carried out in August.
A Yahoo Japan survey last year found 92 percent of the public supports this activity, both at the elementary and junior high school level.
Saito of the Yokohama board of education said, “I think we have a good start to teach kids the spirit of public service.
“Today’s children have less work responsibility and smaller roles even within the family. But some kids from our model schools are starting to clean toilets at home as well.”