A room dedicated to the warrior culture in Kyoto at the Hoshinoya resort in Arashiyama, Japan.

Cleaning is as essential as drinking water. Everyone does it. Yes, the degree to which someone cleans varies (think Shrek to Cinderella) but almost every being cleans in some way. Birds preen their feathers. Dogs lick their butt. Robots vacuum floors.

However, in many cultures, and countries, cleaning is beyond just a habitual task: it represents a practice of tradition, a sense of status, and even acts as protection from spirits. In fact, cleaning in many cultures has become an integral part of people’s way of life.

In this series we’ll explore cleaning in cultures across the globe. (We would say the universe, but Elon Musk hasn’t quite cracked space travel yet.) To start our journey, enter one of the cleanest countries in the world: Japan.

First timers to Japan have a unanimous impression: it’s so clean. Public roads have no gum on the floor. Seats on the subway sparkle. Park benches have no bird poop on them. Starbucks toilets are cleaner than some hotel bathrooms.

What’s even more peculiar in the OCD wonderland of Japan is that there are almost no public trashcans in sight. Where did this obsession for clean come from?

 

1. It comes from Wa.

A woodblock print by Mizuno Toshikata from the early 20th century.

Wa (和) is one of the most important values in Japanese culture. It’s the Japanese word for harmony. It’s also the same in Mandarin and Korean. In Japanese mythology, wa is the most important value that the gods upheld. The gods practiced wa by emphasizing the importance of empathy and how your actions affect others. Cleanliness is just one of the many things that create wa.

 

2. Cleaning starts in First Grade.

Habits become habits when you practice them. The Japanese are pros at cleaning because they put their 10,000 hours in since the first grade. It’s required by schools all over Japan to do a half hour to full hour cleanup after school. In fact, older students in the 4th grade teach 1st graders how to clean. This process has been repeated for decades.

 

3. It’s a community affair.

In Harujuku, busy streets and stores look like they were just built.

It’s customary in Japan to do neighborhood cleanups, sometimes mandatory. People start cleaning as early as 7am before the workday starts. Neighborhood cleanliness also marks as pride and respect for the place they live in.

 

4. It’s ingrained into pop culture.

Cleanliness is constantly observed, enforced, or mentioned in manga and television. In the hit Netflix series “Terrace House” reality stars on the show are constantly seen cleaning the home they live in (there was one whole episode where the guests just cleaned the pool).

There’s an anime series about someone who has OCD, “Clean Freak! Aoyama Kun”.

In Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the main character Chihiro spends a whole day cleaning the bathhouse with fellow staff. Part of the movie’s plot includes cleaning: Chihiro saves the River Spirit by removing pollution.

 

5. It’s Eco-Friendly

Japan has the world’s 11th largest population, 127 million people to be exact. Every year waste is piling up and the aging demographic increases population growth. The government and schools have been working together to create cleaning programs to minimize waste. To do this, Japan created one of the most sophisticated recycling programs. Japanese citizens have to sort their daily waste into 4 different trash bins: combustibles, incombustibles, oversized garbage, and bottles and cans. In addition, the Japanese have a unique electronics recycling program where people can drop off their unwanted products and people in need can pickup these items for free. These items range from refrigerators to TVs. Oh yeah, all of these items are clean and still work.