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The Budo Odyssey: Living and Training in Japan

The Cleaning Cult (Part I)

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Japan is obsessed with cleaning. They make Mr. Clean look lazy. There is a serious "cleaning cult" in Japan, or should I say "Cultish Cleaning". This probably spans from religion and anyone versed in Nihon-ron would point there first. Shinto, the homogeneous religion of Japan that co-exists and shares turf with Buddhism, is more than likely the culprit as within Shinto there is a obsession with purity and cleanliness.

However, I am willing to say most of this as it exists outside of symbolism is just an illusion. A front to the truth. Allow me to explain...

The Shoe Thing
Let's start out with the shoe thing. No shoes in the house, they are viewed as dirty. Many times shoes are dirty and the practice serves to save nice wooden floors and gentle tatami. However, common sense will quickly lead one to break down the assumption that the floors of the house are clean. They aren't. Your feet aren't clean either as all manner of horrible fungus and bacteria can grow on them. Also, there is a newer tradition of wearing house slippers, or actual "indoor shoes" called "wagutsu" . One must have two pairs of shoes in order to wear them indoors to be deemed sanitary, or walk around without shoes on. This leads on to the conclusion that shoes are, in fact, cleaner than the foot. But only in certain situations. Hmm...

So what's wrong with this? Nothing really, but there is a veil of assumption here. It's the view that muddy shoes are just as dirty as shoes that are spotless, but worn outdoors. It assumes that your feet aren't clean, but special clean shoes are. So simple reasoning leads me to this: the idea that shoes are dirty is just an illusion, not based on facts, but on a certain cultural blindness. Now this is fine if it's a cultural issue- however the logic behind it does not stand up to scrutiny. So most people will just assume it (the shoes thing) is true without thinking. They defend it rigorously. It's part of a larger collective of thought that is outdated, misunderstood but still carried on without any fundamental realization of what it is. It's non-thinking behavior.

And like the old adage, "It's the thought that counts".

Before I go any farther, I want to make it clear that I live in Japan and yes I take off my shoes in my house and the houses of others. I have wood and tatami floors in most of my house so this practice saves them. I also clean them like a madman on a very regular basis because they get filthy. I don't particularly like making people mad when I visit them either, so I most certainly de-shoe before entering anyone's domicile. That being said, I am under no illusions as to what purpose is served, nor blind to the fact that it's a custom. I am not going to defend it, however. It simply doesn't make sense unless we are talking about preserving flooring or keeping truly dirty shoes out of the house.

Incessant Cleaning
When I first started working for a Japanese company ten years ago come September of 2011, I was made to clean for two days straight along with my regular work. This is actually traditional and most every new employee in a company goes through some rite of passage like this. The new person is in effect, the janitor. I'm used to manual labor, I had worked through college and was no stranger to it . I was actually pretty good at it...a little too good in fact. Actually I got into trouble because I would clean thoroughly and be done with it fast, making the lazy office people find something else for me to do. At this point, allow me to recapitulate, with a situation from my experience:
(Open scene: Me putting away cleaning supplies)
Boss: "Russ are you finished cleaning?"
Me: "Yes, everything is clean. I swept, scrubbed then mopped with bleach"
Boss: "You finished too fast. Let me inspect"
<<(moments later)>>
Boss: "It's clean, but you cheated. Don't use the mop. Use the zokin (rags) and do it all again by hand. It's not clean until you have done that."
(end scene)

From this it becomes very obvious that the "cleaning" was not about "cleaning" at all. It seems to be some kind of psychological tool. Being clean isn't actually important. It's looking like you are cleaning, being very inefficient in doing it, and making sure to do it in the hardest way possible.

Now while this might be all fine and dandy to the "non-thinking robot", it does not sit well with me. There is a motive other than getting the job done. So what is the real lesson being learned here?

Let me summarize:

1) Just look busy. That's more important than actually working.
2) Your effort is more important than your efficiency.
3) Submit your will! One of us, one of us....

While this might seem trivial, I have actually witnessed where this type of thinking is harmful. People simply lose the grasp of what is clean and what is unclean. The psychological play, perhaps a type of cultural furiai (meaning to touch) goes too far and leaves people confused and stressed out. I have seen people washing a bright, white and spotless corner for 35 minutes because they weren't sure if it was 'clean enough". The whole affair was maddening and they had work to be done. Furthermore, I have watched a foolish mechanic take a rag and brush to a filthy two stroke engine for an hour and a half without any kind of solvent- a job that would have taken a mere 15 minutes in a standard shop cleaning tank (which they did have, it's just no one knew how to use it until I showed up and started using it). Being more efficient, saving money and time wasn't important to the mechanic. It was more important that the employee appeared to be cleaning. Wasting the customers money and the time of other customers by doing menial chores inefficiently was not considered exigent- but of course it was billed.

So, my conclusion to all of this is: There is some kind of freaky, strange cleaning cult underlying Japan. One that does not understand what is clean and what is unclean, how to clean properly or sometimes even how to use your intellect to figure out a way to get things cleaner. Thus, from this I suspect that the idea of "clean" in Japan is just ideal, without a firm grip on what is actually clean.

Strange huh! (Continued in part II).
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Updated 06-13-2011 at 12:17 by Tripitaka of AA (Proofreading corrections with Russ's permission)



  1. tourchman1's Avatar
    every yin has yen so for all those that stay clean in the world the rest are dirty.
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  2. Mekugi's Avatar
    I'll take yen...USD...ya
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  3. Tripitaka of AA's Avatar
    Cash, keeping clean, we wouldn't be talking about money-laundering!?
    Yin-yang, In-yo (if you prefer) or two sides of a coin.. either way there are people out there that value things above others. I tend to value chocolate above beer, but this probably puts me in the minority (of adults at least).
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