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).