Oh no, it’s 大掃除 (ōsōji, large-scale cleaning) season. While people in other countries get to visit Santas in shopping malls and cavort with friends over endless pints, we in Japan are forced to get on our knees and scrub tatami mats with 固く絞った雑巾 (kataku shibotta zōkin, a much wrung-out dust cloth) for like, hours on end for days and days. OK, so I’m exaggerating. Or rather, I’m allowing myself to be traumatized by the Ghost of Ōsōji Past.
Growing up, I always hated the month of December as my mother’s moods steadily turned blacker with each passing day. Our family calendar was marked not with advent festivities, but with ōsōji prepping: The 15th was when the closets had to be cleaned out, the 20th marked the day when ダンボール箱 (danbōru-bako, cardboard boxes) of stuff purchased over the last 11 months had to be opened and their contents sorted and stored away, and so on and so forth.
The boxes, by the way, had to be neatly folded and wedged in whatever narrow space was available or tied up with string and carried to the neighborhood trash bin on the designated 資源ゴミ (shigen gomi, recyclable trash) day.
After Christmas, my mother’s rages reached peak level as the kids left gift debris scattered across our minuscule living room and the countdown to 大晦日 (ōmisoka, Dec. 31) began in earnest.
Tradition and the standards of Japanese womanhood exhorted my mother, and countless other mothers, to have the house spotlessly clean and the 冷蔵庫 (reizōko, refrigerator) cleaned and wiped down before being crammed with お正月 (oshōgatsu, new year holiday) goodies by New Year’s Eve.
Both these tasks took many hours of intensive labor as the house gradually began to resemble a war zone — with my mother as the lone commander of the ōsōji front. We kids were called upon to 手伝う (tetsudau, help out), but December is a busy time for Japanese teens: It’s either 部活 (bukatsu, extra-curricular activities) practice or we’re bent over books in preparation for high school and college entrance exams that usually come around late January and early February. As for dads and husbands, they were drinking at company 忘年会 (bōnenkai, year-end party) after working 90-hour weeks, and could not be counted on as 即戦力 (sokusenryoku, foot soldiers or people who would be immediately useful).
As the days snaked their way toward ōmisoka, however, no one in our house could ignore the fact that my mom’s 堪忍袋 (kan’ninbukuro, mental cram bag of endurance) was about to burst.
The 29th was reserved for 水回り (mizumawari, anywhere with plumbing laid out), and on this day it was all hands on deck with no exceptions. We kids took the hated 風呂 掃除 (furo sōji, cleaning out the bath) and トイレ掃除 (toire sōji, toilet cleaning) in shifts — the first group went in and gave the floors a wipe down, then the second group cleaned the drains with much cursing and shouting out of disgust, and finally my mom got out bottles of mold busters to sprinkle over everything and sealed both premises for a few hours.
The mold buster, often synonymous with the bestselling product name カビキラー (Kabi Kirā, literally, “mold killer”), is highly effective but potentially lethal. Over the years we’d heard of how people (mostly women and the elderly) scrubbing the bathroom with this antimold solution would suddenly conk out from respiratory problems and be rushed to the hospital.
Some years, my mother made her own cleaning solution from vinegar and 重曹 (jūsō, baking soda) but the kids complained that it never did the job and that the kabi crept back in a few days. In retrospect, I can see that we were willing to take hospitalization over giving everything a good, hard wipe-down. ごめんね、お母さん (gomen-ne, okāsan, “Sorry Mom”).
Given that we all survived the ōsōji years, maybe things weren’t that bad. Things wound down on the 30th, when the windows, the 玄関 (genkan, foyer) and 下駄箱 (getabako, storage box for shoes) had to be thoroughly cleaned, and any worn-out 通学靴 (tsūgakugutsu, leather shoes worn to school) had to be mended and polished. The veranda area was cleared of debris and dead plants, then swept up and hosed down.
Should any of these tasks be forgotten, my father went into a terrible rage from which none of us could recover for the whole of 三が日 (sanganichi, Jan. 1, 2 and 3).
But on the evening of Dec. 30, I could sneak out to see friends at the local モスバ (mosu-ba, fast food joint Mos Burger) or ミスド (misu-do, Mister Donut) and while away the hours with ダベリ (daberi, idle chatter) over rounds of sugar and caffeine. When I got home the house would be warm, clean and redolent with cooking smells from a sparkling kitchen.
Ōmisoka was busy again with last-minute ōsōji duties and the writing of 年賀状 (nengajō, new year greeting post cards). Both have become unpopular tasks in the Japanese lifestyle — ōsōji has been replaced by 断捨離 (danshari, decluttering) or 小掃除 (kosōji, downsized cleaning), and the nengajō by greetings on SNS.
日本のお正月 (Nippon no oshōgatsu, Japanese New Year’s) has become a lot more efficient and relaxed. Still, there are plenty of people who keep up the ōsōji tradition, as evidenced by TV programs, YouTube and lifestyle magazines that are full of 年末 (nenmatsu, year-end) cleaning tips. I found one on the best method for ガス台の掃除 (gasudai no sōji, cleaning the stove tops) and will send that to my mother.
Which brings me to: 旧年中はお世話になりました。来年もよろしくお願いします (Kyūnenchū wa osewa ni narimashita. Rainen mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu, “Thank you for all that happened in the past year. Please accept my best regards for the new year.”)