One of Japan’s year-end traditions is ōsōji, which literally translates to “big clean.” While it roughly equates with the Western concept of spring cleaning, ōsōji is connected to Shinto practices of purifying homes and shrines for the coming new year. Since most people are on vacation from work and school, theoretically the entire family is around to pitch in and help.

With colder months seeming to herald a rise in COVID-19 cases, coupled with the fact that the Japanese government is calling on businesses to extended new-year holidays to mitigate crowding and lessen the risk of infection, it might be prudent to follow local customs and take some time to give your home a literal and spiritual cleanse this winter.

Cleaning has actually been a trending topic all year. According to a recent nationwide survey of 2,080 people by Duskin Co., a leading firm in the cleaning services industry, more than a third of respondents said they cleaned more often as a result of the increased time at home, indicating a heightened awareness of the importance of hygiene and even a sense of accomplishment gained from cleaning.

Overall, 71.2% of all participants indicated they were going to do some year-end cleaning, a significant jump from the 2019 figure of 52.5%, which had been the lowest on record since Duskin began conducting annual surveys in 2004. Moreover, while Japanese women generally bear the brunt of housework, the figures for female and male participants planning to do ōsōji were very similar, at 71.2% and 69.1%, respectively.

Megumi Hashimoto of Duskin’s PR department says that some advance planning can be helpful for getting into the ōsōji mindset, such as deciding which days to set aside for it, and who will be in charge of cleaning which areas. She also recommends ensuring you have all the tools and cleaning agents you’ll need in advance — nothing puts a damper on good intentions like running out of a cleanser halfway into the job. At this time of the year you’ll find special displays of cleaning products and tools at supermarkets, department stores and home centers.

The year-end holidays are a particularly good opportunity to tackle those areas that usually go unnoticed, such as air conditioning units. Chances are you used your air conditioner more than usual if you spent most of the summer at home, so it might pay to dust off the filters with a damp cloth and give the fins a clean with a eakon senjō supurē (エアコン洗浄スプレー, air conditioner cleaning spray) before using it to heat your room.

Mari Komiya, a home organizing professional based in Tokyo, says there are certain measures that can be taken to help prevent the spread of infection and make the home a safe space for everyone.

“Cleaning is most effective if the dust and dirt is removed before disinfection and sterilization. It is important to clean the areas that people often come in contact with first, and then disinfect and sterilize them. In particular, pay attention to table tops, doorknobs, remote controls and toilet seat buttons,” she says.

When deep cleaning a room, Komiya advises starting with the ceiling, then moving to walls and finally to floors. “Use a microfiber cloth or mop to prevent dust and dirt from being stirred up and wipe surfaces from top to bottom,” she says. “For table tops, wipe in only one direction to avoid spreading dirt and bacteria around. And it’s ideal to finish off with a disinfecting cleaner, such as one that contains ethanol.”

Of course, cleaning is much easier when things are reasonably organized to start with. Earlier in the year when schools were closed and companies asked employees to refrain from coming into the office, many households had to pivot to create space for working and studying at home. Now could be a good time to re-evaluate the systems you put into place and see if they could be tweaked to better suit current needs. And while none of us wants to think about getting sick, it is easier to set up a safe space for an infected family member to self-isolate in a well-organized home.

One way to create more space is to get rid of items. Mottainai Japan, a Facebook group with more than 33,000 members, serves as a forum where the international community offers items for free to anyone willing to accept them.

“We do get a big intake of items from December to February, as many expats are either returning home or moving for family and work purposes,” says Marvin Estrellado, a member of the administrative team behind the group. “I’ve noticed however, the spike has remained somewhat flat, perhaps owing to the fact that earlier this year there was a large increase of furniture giveaways from expats wanting to get rid of their stuff to either return home or move into a smaller place due to COVID-19 loss of jobs and projects,” he explains. Despite a large drop in the number of newly arrived foreign nationals due to re-entry restrictions and bans on international travel among the pandemic, he adds that the number of people accepting goods has remained surprisingly high.

Along with the practical benefits that come with cleaning and organizing, there may also be some psychological ones, too. Letting go of possessions we no longer need can free up mental space and energy for more important things. Along with myriad other changes, COVID-19 has brought about the feeling that we no longer have control over many aspects of our daily lives. The one place where we do have autonomy is at home, so creating the ideal living environment that works for you and your family members can bring a sense of peace and accomplishment. And that’s worth a little elbow grease.

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