Best of BBC Travel - 2019 | Cultural Traditions
What Japan can teach us about cleanliness
One of the first things visitors to Japan notice is how clean everywhere is – yet there are hardly any litter bins and street sweepers. What's the secret behind this contradiction?
(This year, we published many inspiring and amazing stories that made us fall in love with the world – and this is one our favourites. Clickherefor the full list).
The students sit with their satchels on their desks, eager to get home after another long day of seven 50-minute classes. They listen patiently as their teacher makes a few announcements about tomorrow’s timetable. Then, as every day, the teacher’s final words: “OK everybody, today’s cleaning roster. Lines one and two will clean the classroom. Lines three and four, the corridor and stairs. And line five will clean the toilets.”
A few groans arise from line five, but the children stand up, grab the mops, cloths and buckets from the broom cupboard at the back of the classroom, and trot off to the toilets. Similar scenes are happening at schools across the country.
Most first-time visitors to Japan are struck by how clean the country is. Then they notice the absence of litter bins. And street sweepers. So they’re left with the question: how does Japan stay so clean?
Most first-time visitors to Japan are struck by how clean the country is (Credit: Ian Dagnall/Alamy)
The easy answer is that residents themselves keep it that way. “For 12 years of school life, from elementary school to high school, cleaning time is part of students’ daily schedule,” said Maiko Awane, assistant director of Hiroshima Prefectural Government’s Tokyo office. “In our home life as well, parents teach us that it’s bad for us not to keep our things and our space clean.”
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Including this element of social consciousness in the school curriculum helps the children develop an awareness of, and pride in, their surroundings. Who wants to dirty or deface a school that they have to clean up themselves?
“I sometimes didn't want to clean the school,” recalled freelance translator Chika Hayashi, “but I accepted it because it was part of our routine. I think having to clean the school is a very good thing because we learn that it’s important for us to take responsibility for cleaning the things and places that we use.”
On arriving at school, students leave their shoes in lockers and change into trainers. At home, too, people leave their street shoes at the entrance. Even workmen coming to your house will remove their shoes and pad around in their socks. And as the schoolchildren grow, their concept of what constitutes their space extends beyond the classroom to include their neighbourhood, their city and their country.
At Japanese schools, cleaning is part of students’ everyday routine (Credit: Chris Willson/Alamy)
Some examples of extreme Japanese cleanliness have gone viral, like the seven-minute Shinkansen train-cleaning ritual that has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
Even Japan’s football supporters are cleanliness-conscious. In World Cup football tournaments in Brazil (2014) and Russia (2018), the national team’s fans amazed the world by staying behind to pick up rubbish from the stadium. The players also left their dressing room in immaculate condition. “What an example for all teams!” tweeted FIFA’s general coordinator Priscilla Janssens.
“We Japanese are very sensitive about our reputation in others’ eyes,” Awane said. “We don’t want others to think we are bad people who don’t have enough education or upbringing to clean things up.”
Similar scenes unfold at Japanese music festivals. At the Fuji Rock festival, Japan’s biggest and oldest festival, fans keep their rubbish with them until they find a bin. Smokers are instructed to bring a portable ashtray and to ‘refrain from smoking where your smoke can affect other people’, according to the festival website. How different to 1969’s Woodstock festival, where Jimi Hendrix played to a handful of people amid a vast morass of trash.
We don’t want others to think we are bad people who don’t have enough education or upbringing to clean things up
Examples of social awareness abound in daily life too. Around 08:00, for instance, office workers and shop staff clean the streets around their place of work. Children volunteer for the monthly community clean, picking up rubbish from the streets near their school. Neighbourhoods, too, hold regular street-cleaning events. Not that there’s much to clean, because people take their litter home.
Even banknotes emerge from ATM’s as crisp and clean as a freshly starched shirt. Nevertheless, money gets dirty, which is why you never put it directly into someone’s hand. In shops, hotels and even in taxis, you’ll see a little tray to place the money. The other person then picks it up.
Invisible dirt – germs and bacteria – are another source of concern. When people catch colds or flu, they wear surgical masks to avoid infecting other people. This simple act of consideration for others reduces the spread of viruses, thereby saving a fortune in lost work days and medical expenses.
From a young age, the Japanese develop an awareness of, and pride in, their surroundings (Credit: Angeles Marin Cabello)
So how did the Japanese become so clean-conscious?
It certainly isn’t a new thing, as mariner Will Adams found when he anchored here in 1600, thus becoming the first Englishman to set foot in Japan. In his biography of Adams, Samurai William,Giles Milton notes ‘the nobility were scrupulously clean’, enjoying ‘pristine sewers and latrines’ and steam baths of scented wood at a time when the streets of England ‘often overflowed with excrement’. The Japanese ‘were appalled’ by the Europeans’ disregard for personal cleanliness.
In part, this preoccupation is born of practical concerns. In a hot, humid environment like Japan’s, food goes off quickly. Bacteria flourish. Bug life abounds. So good hygiene means good health.
Cleanliness is a central part of Buddhism (Credit: Angeles Marin Cabello)
But it goes deeper than that. Cleanliness is a central part of Buddhism, which arrived from China and Korea between the 6th and 8th Centuries. In fact, in the Zen version of Buddhism, which came to Japan from China in the 12th and 13th Centuries, daily tasks like cleaning and cooking are considered spiritual exercises, no different from meditating.
“In Zen, all daily life activities, including having meals and cleaning the space, must be regarded as an opportunity to practice Buddhism. Washing off the dirt both physically and spiritually plays an important role in the daily practice,” said Eriko Kuwagaki of Shinshoji Temple in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture.
Washing off the dirt both physically and spiritually plays an important role in the daily practice
In Okakura Kakuro’s The Book of Tea, his classic book about the tea ceremony and the Zen philosophy that infuses it, he writes that, in the room where the tea ceremony is held “…everything is absolutely clean. Not a particle of dust will be found in the darkest corner, for if any exists the host is not a tea master.”
Okakura wrote those words in 1906, but they still hold true today. Prior to a tea ceremony at the Seifukan tea house in Hiroshima’s Shukkeien Garden, you’ll see the tea master’s kimono-clad assistant on her hands and knees dabbing the tatami floor with a roll of sticky brown-paper tape, picking up every speck of dust.
In Zen Buddhism, daily tasks like cleaning and cooking are considered spiritual exercises (Credit: Photo Japan/Alamy)
So why aren’t all Buddhist nations as zealously clean as Japan? Well, long before the arrival of Buddhism, Japan already had its own indigenous religion: Shinto (meaning ‘The Way of The Gods’), said to enshrine the very soul of the Japanese identity. And cleanliness lies at the heart of Shinto. In the West, we are taught that cleanliness is next to godliness. In Shinto, cleanliness is godliness. So Buddhism’s emphasis on cleanliness merely reinforced what the Japanese already practiced.
A key concept in Shinto is kegare (impurity or dirt), the opposite of purity. Examples of kegare range from death and disease to virtually anything unpleasant. Frequent purification rituals are necessary to ward off kegare.
“If an individual is afflicted by kegare, it can bring harm to society as a whole,” explained Noriaki Ikeda, assistant Shinto priest at Hiroshima’s Kanda Shrine. “So it is vital to practice cleanliness. This purifies you and helps avoid bringing calamities to society. That is why Japan is a very clean country.”
Before entering a Shinto shrine, worshippers rinse their hands and mouth in a stone water basin at the entrance (Credit: Angeles Marin Cabello)
This concern for others is understandable in the case of, say, infectious diseases. But it also works on more prosaic levels, like picking up your own rubbish. As Awane put it: “We Japanese believe we shouldn’t bother others by being lazy and neglecting the trash we’ve made.”
Examples of ritual purification abound in everyday life. Before entering a Shinto shrine, worshippers rinse their hands and mouth in a stone water basin at the entrance. Many Japanese take their new car to the shrine to be purified by the priest, who uses a feather duster-like wand called onusa that he waves around the car. He then opens the doors, bonnet and boot to purify the interior. The priest also purifies people by waving the onusa from side to side over them. He will even use it to purify land on which new building is about to commence.
If you live in Japan, you soon find yourself adopting the clean lifestyle. You stop blowing your nose in public, make use of the hand sanitizers provided for customers in shops and offices, and learn to sort your household rubbish into 10 different types to facilitate recycling.
Many Japanese take their new car to a Shinto shrine to be purified by the priest (Credit: Angeles Marin Cabello)
And, like Will Adams and his castaway crew back in 1600, you find your quality of life improves.
Then, when you return to your homeland, you’re shocked by barbarians who sneeze and cough in your face. Or stomp into your house in dirty shoes. Unthinkable in Japan.
But there’s still hope. After all, it also took a while for Pokémon, sushi and camera phones to sweep the world.
Why We Are What We Are is a BBC Travel series examining the characteristics of a country and investigating whether they are true.
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It is said that the Shinto gods hate filth or dirty. In the Shinto shrine, we need to wash our hands before praying. Also, Buddhism teaches importance of cleanliness for having a peaceful mind. Therefore, it became our custom to take responsibility of our own mess and take garbage back home.Why the Japanese culture is so concerned with cleanliness and responsibility? ›
Japan has suffered from numerous epidemics, widespread infectious diseases and food poisonings and many other devastating events in the past. Because of these tragedies, we became aware of the importance of keeping our environment clean. More than thirty years ago, the streets in Japan were littered with garbage.How do the Japanese build the habit of cleanliness? ›
They get into the bath and wash themselves before they go to sleep. They even wash their bottoms using shower toilets... All of these activities are common lifestyle customs for people in Japan. You could say that Japanese people put great importance on the act of washing in order to keep their hands and bodies clean.How does Japan keep their country clean? ›
Every morning you'll find various people in Japan sweeping up around their house or place of employment. These are not building maintenance workers, but shop keepers, office men, nurses, etc. When it comes to household waste, you schlep your bags to the neighborhood's designated curb yourself.What can Japan teach us about cleanliness? ›
In Shinto, cleanliness is godliness. So Buddhism's emphasis on cleanliness merely reinforced what the Japanese already practiced. A key concept in Shinto is kegare (impurity or dirt), the opposite of purity. Examples of kegare range from death and disease to virtually anything unpleasant.Why cleanliness is so important for us? ›
Cleanliness gives rise to a good character by keeping body, mind, and soul clean and peaceful. Bathing is very crucial for everyone. We need to take a bath at least once a day to keep you healthy. Cleanliness prevents dangerous infectious diseases by keeping away microbes, germs, mosquitoes, and other pathogens.Are Japanese obsessed with cleanliness? ›
Japan and its people are obsessed with cleanliness, and that obsession is reflected in the culture of baths, and their quirky, lavish toilets. They even have a 'Toilet God' as well as various 'Toilet Ghosts'. In earlier times, people in Japan did not consider the toilet to be part of the house.Is Japan the cleanest country? ›
Japan - the cleanest country in the world and their sense of environmental protection. Japan is the country most affected by natural disasters in the world, so the environment is destroyed, pollution is unavoidable. However, Japan is considered to be the greenest, cleanest and most beautiful country in the world.Which is the cleanest country in the world? ›
- Denmark - 82.5.
- Luxembourg - 82.3.
- Switzerland - 81.5.
- United Kingdom - 81.3.
- France - 80.
- Austria - 79.6.
- Finland - 78.9.
- Sweden - 78.7.
In Japan, there is a tradition that the students themselves clean their schools. For just 15 minutes at the end of the day, students use brooms, vaccuums, and cloths to clean the classrooms, bathrooms, and other school spaces.
Japanese students clean their own school which makes them more responsible citizens. Gakko Soji followed in Japanese schools turns cleanliness into a habit of responsibility one simply cannot shake. It also embeds the idea in children that no work -- not even cleaning bathrooms -- is menial.Which among the Japanese terms refers to cleanliness? ›
Seiso (clean) implies keeping things clean and polished in the workplace.Are Japanese the cleanest people? ›
Japan is widely recognized as one of the cleanest countries in the world; people have high hygiene awareness, along with good habits such as hand washing and mouth rinsing.How can we keep our country clean? ›
- Reduce the usage of your electrical appliances. This serves as the best means to conserve the energy. ...
- Drive your car less. ...
- Recycle the waste products. ...
- Reduce carbon footprints. ...
- Grow your food locally. ...
- Reduce contaminants. ...
- Avoid the pollution.
Starting from elementary school until they get through high school, practicing cleanliness is a part of everyday activities for Japanese children. This is something that has become so much a part of Japanese culture that even parents make sure the same discipline is continued when the kids come home.How Japan care about the environment? ›
Japan introduced an Environmental Impact Assessment Law in 1997. Several laws promoting recycling were passed, including a packaging recycling law, a home appliances recycling law and the construction materials recycling law.How do you teach students about cleanliness? ›
- Steps in Teaching Children about Cleanliness. Cleanliness is one of the must have habits in all the individuals. ...
- Personal Hygiene. The first step to cleanliness is personal hygiene. ...
- Keeping Surroundings Clean. ...
- Keeping Bathroom Clean. ...
- Learning Clean Habits at an Early Age. ...
- Cleanliness while Eating.
Importance of Cleanliness
Cleanliness helps us stay refreshed and hygienic on a personal level. Further, it lessens the chances of any viruses or bacteria to harm us. When you stay clean and keep the environment clean, you are less likely to fall ill. You can enjoy good health and lead an active lifestyle.
Keeping you home clean and tidy is no mean feat, but it could be key to maintaining your mental and physical wellbeing. Decluttering and cleaning promotes a positive mental attitude and can have an energising effect, allowing you to focus on other challenges in your life.What is cleanliness in simple words? ›
clean·li·ness ˈklen-lē-nəs. : the quality or state of being clean : the practice of keeping oneself or one's surroundings clean.
Brazilians are the cleanest people in the world. Their personal higiene comes from the native índios. The índios took showers daily and sometimes even twice! There are many stories about Brazilian's showering habits across the world.What is the Japanese term for cleaning even if things are not dirty? ›
The second character潔 when used on its own is pronounced “isagiyoi” and means “undefiled, clean, gracious and courageous.” The two characters together mean “clean and sanitary.” Seiketsu is not simply a momentary state of cleanliness. It is an attitude of cleanliness and consistent habits for keeping things clean.Is Tokyo a clean city? ›
When you visit Tokyo, you'll get a window into the future where people respect their surroundings. The roads, the pavements – everything is clean in Tokyo. Tokyo is so clean it even has dedicated cigarette smoking stations.Which is the No 1 cleanest city in the world? ›
1 Calgary in Canada – Cleanest City in the World
The cleanest city in the world is situated between Rocky Mountains and Prairies in Canada. It also has two rivers flowing across it, adding to the beauty of the city.
In fact, pigs are some of the cleanest animals around, refusing to excrete anywhere near their living or eating areas when given a choice.Why is cleanliness important in schools? ›
A clean environment in school contributes to a healthy environment for the students to learn. On the other hand, it also encourages a good workplace environment for the teachers, eventually helping the kids to grow in a motivating and nurturing atmosphere.Why is it important for students to clean up after themselves? ›
Asking children to tidy up after themselves gives them discipline, skills, and a sense of responsibility and pride. These qualities will be useful as they grow older and become "messy" teenagers; they'll be much more likely to keep their things tidy if they've always had the responsibility to do so.Why should students be responsible of cleaning their school? ›
Healthier Teachers and Students
Keeping your school clean will help prevent your teachers and students from getting sick, which will reduce the times they'll have to miss school days and classes.
Kaizen is an approach in which every one of the people working at a production site considers measures to improve quality and productivity by doing whatever they can to reduce waste in the production process and implement such measures in their jobs.What is the most important taught in early childhood in Japan? ›
The main focus of Japanese early childhood education is to guide children to develop basic human attributes. Teachers in Japan provide children with age- appropriate technology in order to enhance play, rather than focus on academic skills.
The word seiso which is often referred to as shine in 5S literally means “cleaning” in Japanese. As the word suggests, one goes through the process of cleaning in the shine or seiso stage of 5S.What refers to the five Japanese words that describe the standard way of cleaning? ›
5S is the principles of work environment improvement derived from the Japanese words seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke. In English the five Ss are respectively described Sort, Set Shine, Standardize, and Sustain.Why is it important to keep the environment clean? ›
Cleaning the environment is the key to existence and survival of life on planet earth. Maintaining a clean environment reduces pollution, preserves our biosphere, protects endangered species, and also helps preserve the earth's natural resources. In society, the state of cleanliness of a society represents the mindset.Why should a country be clean? ›
It is necessary to keep our country clean because we get fresh air, reduce pollution etc. ... It is important to focus on this as we have to make sure that the environment is preserved for future generations. Water pollution and litter are considered to be two of the main cause of the environment being dirty.Does Japan have good hygiene? ›
Compared to many countries, the standard of hygiene in Japan is incredible. From baths to toilets to paper, even germaphobes can find something to take comfort in, in this clean and beautiful country.Why are Japanese cities so clean? ›
Old buildings are constantly being renewed or replaced by new buildings, especially in places like Tokyo. New buildings are spotless, which makes Japanese cities look clean as well. Cleaning up the public space is a virtue.Which country is best for cleanliness? ›
Denmark. With a total EPI score of 82.5, Denmark is 2020's cleanest and most environmentally friendly country. Denmark stands out for its high scores in several categories, including Wastewater Treatment (100), Waste Management (99.8), and Species Protection Index (100).Is Japan one of the cleanest country? ›
The top 10 cleanest countries in the world have two new entries in 2022: Norway and Germany. The runners-up among the 180 countries with high EPIs include Netherlands and Japan with 75.3 and 75.1 EPI scores respectively.Which culture is the cleanest? ›
A Brief Introduction Into Their Cleanliness Culture. Japan is widely recognized as one of the cleanest countries in the world; people have high hygiene awareness, along with good habits such as hand washing and mouth rinsing.
Japan - the cleanest country in the world and their sense of environmental protection. Japan is the country most affected by natural disasters in the world, so the environment is destroyed, pollution is unavoidable. However, Japan is considered to be the greenest, cleanest and most beautiful country in the world.