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Cleanliness in Japan: its roots and modern struggles

Why Japan is so clean and why foreigners are only partly to blame with current problems.

Picture this: you're strolling through a beautiful Japanese park during cherry blossom season, marveling at the delicate pink petals floating in the breeze.

But then, you spot something that shatters the idyllic scene – piles of trash left behind by careless visitors.

Sadly, this is a growing problem in Japan, often attributed to foreigners — but reality is more nuanced.

Let’s look at this aspect of Japan and how it’s intricately woven into the respect for others (more on this in the previous newsletter).

The historical and cultural roots

Why is cleanliness in Japan often seen as remarkable? While many Western countries are also clean, they don’t come close to Japan.

The West rely a lot more on governments to clean after its citizens and cleaning after ourselves is more of a personal choice because of our individualistic nature.

But in Japan, cleanliness isn’t an individualistic choice, it’s a shared responsibility and is rooted into culture and religion.

The influence of Shintoism

Shintoism, Japan's native religion, plays a significant role in the cleanliness culture.

The concept of "kegare" (穢れ), which refers to impurity or pollution, is central to Shinto beliefs.

By keeping things clean, individuals maintain harmony with the "kami" (神), or gods, and show respect for the divine.

This belief system has shaped Japanese attitudes towards cleanliness for centuries, and it continues to influence modern practices and customs.

The role of Zen Buddhism

In Zen practice, daily tasks such as cleaning and cooking are considered spiritual exercises, no different from meditation.

This practice is called "samu" (作務), and it emphasizes mindfulness and being fully present in the moment.

But why other Zen buddhist countries aren’t as clean?

In addition to the role of Shintoism, Japanese Zen has developed its own unique characteristics that set it apart from Zen buddhism practiced elsewhere.

One notable feature is the strong emphasis on discipline and austerity, which is reflected in the meticulous attention to cleanliness in Zen temples and monasteries.

The Japanese Zen aesthetic of "wabi-sabi" (侘寂), which finds beauty in simplicity, imperfection, and the passage of time, also influences the approach to cleanliness.

Rather than striving for a sterile, perfect environment, Japanese Zen practitioners aim to create a clean, orderly space that allows for the appreciation of the natural world and the impermanence of all things.

Modern cleanliness practices

In contemporary Japan, the culture of cleanliness remains strong.

One important aspect for this cleanliness is that it’s not seen as just a chore like in many Western countries.

It’s about responsibility and respect like these following examples:

  • School cleaning: Students are responsible for cleaning their classrooms, hallways, and even toilets, fostering a sense of ownership and responsibility for their learning environment.

  • Community clean-up events: Local communities regularly organize clean-up events to maintain public spaces, parks, and streets, encouraging a sense of collective responsibility for the environment.

  • Removing shoes: Removing shoes before entering homes and certain public spaces, such as temples and traditional restaurants, is a sign of respect and helps keep dirt and grime from the outside world at bay.

Littering: not just a foreigner problem

So you can see how when foreigners fail to respect Japan's cleanliness culture, it can be perceived as a lack of consideration for local customs and values.

Japanese people take great pride in maintaining clean surroundings, and when visitors disregard this — even a little bit — it can lead to frustration and disappointment.

Locals are littering too

However, it's important to note that even locals sometimes fall short when it comes to cleanliness.

During "hanami" (花見), the cherry blossom viewing season, some people get caught up in the festivities and leave behind litter.

And if you wake up early enough, you might see empty beer cans in public parks. Here’s a photo I took this week.

Lack of trash cans

And there’s also the problem of trash cans.

There’s not enough of them!

You will find trash cans in konbinis or next to vending machines, but they’re normally reserved for paying customers (one of the few rules I don’t follow).

You’re meant to carry your litter until you come back home.

But that’s very confusing for foreigners as they don’t know and plan this kind of things.

And badly run governments make this issue worse.

Going Further

Visually Pleasing

Here’s one of my photos (with a filter) of Ryōan-ji, my favorite Zen temple in Kyoto. You can feel the clean aesthetics from Japanese Zen I mentioned before.

Weekly Digest

Recent news relates a lot to the topic of this newsletter and about respect in general.

This recent article goes into why Kyoto is close to bankruptcy. But instead of taking responsibility, they blame foreigners. Very enlightening and also mentions the trash problem.

There’s been a surge of foreign youtubers disrupting public order in Japan for views. But local youtubers aren’t better.

I also recommend this video explaining how Japanese youtubers do horrible things for views.

After a view of mount Fuji above a Lawson (convenience store) went viral, the spot has been overrun by tourists to the point that a fence/curtain had to be erected so the normal life could resume in the area.

But tourists have poked holes in the fence and it will need to be replaced.

There are lots of other great spots, but people apparently all need to follow what they saw on TikTok even if it means deterioration of public property.

Let’s end on a lighter note. Mascots are everywhere in Japan, but being one is hard. I hope during hot humid summer days, they don’t have to be outside.