The cleanliness of the Japanese is known worldwide. Thanks to the internet, videos of Japanese students cleaning their schools have gone viral, as well as a memorable clip of how the JR staff clean an entire shinkansen train in under seven minutes. The Japanese have further left their indelible mark at world sporting events by taking their garbage away from stadiums, something unthinkable in most other countries.
So I wasn’t surprised when, while watching the IWF weightlifting championships on TV the other night, two announcers commented on a Japanese competitor’s conduct in the training room.
Announcer A: Hey look, the Japanese competitor is returning his weights to the stand.
Announcer B: Yes, he always does that.
A: I’ve never seen that before.
B: The whole Japanese team does it. And they wipe down the equipment, too.
B: When the competition is over, the team comes out and sweeps the whole area. Then they wipe down the bars and put all their equipment away. I guess all the teams should do that, but the Japanese are the only ones I’ve ever seen do it.
It’s true that when other people are watching, the Japanese are obsessively clean. Institutionalized cleanliness is what is behind the custom for businesses to sweep the sidewalks in front of their buildings every morning, and residential areas that hold regularly scheduled clean-ups where neighbors join in clearing the drains, cutting the grass, and pulling weeds to spruce up the neighborhood. I’ve participated in persnickety volunteer clean-ups around our local train station that involved scraping tiny pieces of paper out of the dirt with tongs or collecting cigarette butts that were hiding behind shrubs because there were no larger pieces of garbage to pick up.
But note that these are predominantly group (or team) activities, performed in public spaces. Individuals themselves adhere to various levels, and subpar levels, of hygiene in their own lives. Japan, like everywhere else in the world, has its share of slobs. The country is just better, perhaps, at policing their delinquents.
Employers dictate that staff wear uniforms and adhere to strict personal grooming standards that would seem overly strict — even discriminatory — in other countries (hair length, color, the application of make-up, etc.). Manners on trains are reinforced with posters and public service announcements. These strategies are meant to ensure that individuals’ slovenly ways don’t creep into the workplace or public sector, while at the same time discourage overall degradation of the standards of society. But this conduct doesn’t necessarily spill over into people’s private lives. On returning home, they are free to act however they feel appropriate. I’m sure many folks go back to perfectly happy homes that are models of complete disarray.
In Japan, this delineation between public and private space is very strong. It also leads to many gray areas. Minshuku (Japanese inns), for example, can be untidy and dirty, especially in the countryside, because although the accommodation is open to the public, the family also lives there, so it doubles as a private space. As a result, unlike a hotel, you’ll be subject to the family’s individual standards of sanitation. Even in a clean minshuku, I dare you to take a peek into the kitchen. The culinarian’s quarter (a private area customers are not expected to enter) has never had the reputation for being very clean in Japan. Thankfully, this is changing as the nation has begun to accommodate more foreign tourists. They are starting to enforce standards rather than turning a blind eye.
Plenty of Japanese people litter, too, which is why businesses clean up outside their buildings at the start of every day. At the end of the Halloween festivities in Tokyo last October, revelers left the Shibuya area a veritable garbage dump. In the countryside, household garbage is regularly and unceremoniously chucked into rivers that swell during the rainy season and carry the pollutants into the seas. The dumping of industrial waste is also a huge problem, again, because of lax law enforcement.
Visitors from overseas mistakenly believe that Japan is populated with clean, fastidious people. They may also equate cleanliness with tidiness. But many people are clean, yet not necessarily tidy. The popularity of Marie Kondo has further hastened the myth that Japanese are orderly because many readers think she is preaching a Japanese method of tidiness, when she’s actually proselytizing her own KonMari Method. She just happens to be Japanese.
Let’s add just one more stereotype to break the proverbial camel’s back: that Japanese live a minimalist, Zen lifestyle. How many Japanese houses have I entered that are actually clutter-free? Not many. The Zen culture has given into a culture of excess and even Zen priests are known to sport the occasional Miffy key chain. You’d be hard up to find anyone living the ideal minimalist life in Japan.
The manufacturers of character goods surely wouldn’t tolerate it anyway. Nor would the custom of o-makemono (products thrown in for free when you purchase something). Banks gleefully heap upon their new customers inutile gifts just because they opened an account. A mere visit to the Japan Agriculture office can spur a squirrel mascot to jump into your life via free sponges, calendars, vinyl sheets and bags. Even the post office pushes free (usually plastic) products on its customers. This is all considered “good service” in Japan, but where are people supposed to put these things? Suddenly, their house is full of rust-colored JA squirrels and “cute” plastic debris. And that’s just the free stuff!
So while Japan is certainly cleaner and more orderly than many other countries — just don’t look in our closets.
Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite” (Stone Bridge Press).
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