Travels in Japan 2015: [Part 12: Cleanliness in Japan]

By | September 4, 2015

Having only travelled to Japan a handful of times, each only a week or two, I am usually hesitant to make any general claims about their culture. After all, there is always a wide distribution of traits in the people of any country. For example, just because I happened to know a few Japanese guys who were into heavy metal music, saying “Heavy metal is popular in Japan” would be jumping to a conclusion.

Having said that, there are few things that I keep my eye on in Japanese culture, and this time I would like to write about one topic which I have been thinking of discussing on this blog for some time. Having been to Japan recently and gathered more information, I now feel that I can write a post that is informative.

The topic is cleanliness, which can be expressed using the word 清潔 (seiketsu) in Japanese. Put simply – based on what I have heard, observed, and experienced, the average awareness of cleanliness is much higher than, say, the average American.

Let’s start with something you may have already heard – the cleanliness of Japanese streets. This is something I have confirmed myself, particularly the statement that Tokyo is significantly cleaner than a metropolis in the US such as New York City. Specifically, there is much less trash in the streets, less graffiti (落書き, rakugaki), and in my subjective judgement things just seem cleaner overall.

I don’t think the laws are particularly harsh regarding things like throwing trash in inappropriate places, though you do see signs around which warn against this (”ポイ捨て禁止”). Ironically, one thing me and my family noticed several times in Japan is that sometimes it is difficult to find a trashcan in public places like train stations. If you do happen to find one, either it’s extremely small, possibly built into some other structure (i.e. not a stand-alone trashcan), and may limit your options to cans or bottles for recycling. I feel that the lack of giant garbage cans all over (like in big cities in the US) may actually be one of the ways they keep trash off the streets, since if one of those cans gets overflowed it can result in random garbage overflowing into the street. But my best explanation for the cleanliness is that Japanese people, as a nation, have a higher awareness of it and are more like to do the right thing regarding garbage disposal.

Another practice in Japan that is pretty well known and shows their consideration about cleanliness is the rule to remove shoes, and sometimes put on slippers, before entering residences and other places. Though I know some households in America to adhere to a similar rule, in Japan this seems to be consistently followed, and breaking the rule is pretty serious. While I don’t think you’d be jailed for it, it would be considered extremely rude. You can even see this reflected in their language, for example in the expression “心を土足で踏みにじる”, which literally means “trample someone’s heart with shoes on”. The word for “with shoes on” is “土足” (dosoku) which is written with the characters for “earth” and “feet”. If you know some Japanese you might want to memorize the word “土足禁止” which means you must take off your shoes before entering a room or other area. It’s also interesting to note that one of the other words for “clean” is 綺麗 (kirei) which also doubles for “pretty”, like a pretty girl.

Now let’s take a step into a Japanese bathroom. Actually, in Japan many times the place where you do your business and where you clean your body with water are in completely separate rooms. Before entering into the bath (which is generally more common than in the U.S.) one always cleans the body with hot water by taking a shower, which is often done away from the bathtub itself. This is the same for both private residences, public bathhouses, and even natural spring water baths (onsens). One reason this rule makes sense is that traditionally some families would reuse the bathwater for everyone in the family, so if the first person dirtied it up the remaining people would have an unpleasant experience.

Keeping on the subject of bathrooms, nearly all of the hotels we stayed in had what I call high-technology toilets, meaning advanced features such as heater seat, bidet (water spray), and other magical buttons to maximize your experience on the pot. One surprising thing about public bathrooms is that on several occasions we were surprised to find they were missing soap and/or towels to dry hands after washing in the sink. I’ve been told some Japanese people carry handkerchiefs and use them as towels in this scenario (which implies they would not use them to wipe their nose). The missing soap is more a mystery, though in most higher-end bathrooms you’ll find some type of soap. Speaking of nose wiping, it is considered impolite to blow one’s noise in public, especially if you make a big show of it. I have seen a few people who just keep sniffling as opposed to blowing their nose.

Japanese people also seem to more sensitive to, or conscious of, food freshness. If you eat raw fish in Japan you’ll likely find a major taste difference than the average sushi shop in the states, but another way this manifests is in their packaging. It’s very common for every single piece to be individually wrapped for snack items like candies. Surely this keeps each bite fresher longer, but can be tedious to eat. I had heard that taking home leftovers in restaurants was uncommon in Japan, but really got to experience that myself when our request to have food wrapped up was flat out turned down. The lady in the kitchen said that with weather so hot nowadays it was likely to spoil quick.

Many restaurants in Japan hand out warm, damp towels (oshibori) before the meal, yet another practice that helps keep clean. Wasabi, which is eaten with sushi, is said to have disinfectant properties as well. One a related note, I am not too familiar with the details of the food industry in America, but I’ve told in Japan that it is typically a long, arduous process to become a restaurant’s chef, starting the multi-year process by doing grunt work like dish washing.

Uchimizu (打ち水) is a traditional custom whereby store employees will splash water in the front of their shop at opening time. There are several reasons to do this: to remove dust and dirt so customers can enter in without getting dirty, or to cool down the hot ground for a more pleasant environment. There is also a Shintoist religious implication related to purification (清める). You’ll come across other places where purification with water is done in Japan, such as in Shintoist temples. Lately the tradition of uchimizu has been practiced less frequently, though you still may spot it now and then. As an interesting side note, while watching TV in Japan there was a bit about how splashing water like thiscan actually increase the heat, depending on the ground type and weather conditions.

The above are just a few ways where the Japanese perspective on cleanliness can be seen. I’m sure that living there would allow you to see more subtle societal practices that go along the same lines.

If you’ve observed anything related to cleanliness in Japanese culture,  I’d be curious to hear your experience.

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