The last day of the year in Tokyo, my neighborhood fills with the hum of machines and the splash of water. The swish of brooms and clink of laundry poles echoes though the air. Everything, inside the houses and out, is getting cleaned. It’s “O-soji,” big cleaning, a ritual of energy and activity that brings the year to a close and leaves everything sparkling clean.
My neighbor across the road was working on his gutters as I stopped to offer my New Year greetings.
“It’s too, um, busy inside. Safer out here,” he says, nodding at the front door open to air out the interior. The angry whir of a vacuum cleaner comes from inside. “I don’t dare go back in,” he adds, and leans back down to his task.
“Ganbatte! Good luck!” I shout. He has an old vacuum cleaner, a hose, deck brooms and several bags of swept-up leaves, trash and gunk around the perimeter of his home.
I head to the park, guilty for not doing any cleaning whatsoever. All I want is a good, solid jog, which I tell myself is big cleaning of my body, breaking down and pumping out all the toxins from the end-of-the-year parties.
When I get back from the jog in the park, which was relatively clean since the maintenance crews already hauled off the leaves, my other neighbor is out front, sweeping up with the same short broom and pan his father used every morning until he died a few years ago.
“Cleaning up?” I shout to him.
He stands and nods, holding the broom and pan. “It’s the last day of the year,” he tells me, the question left hanging whether I’ve finished my cleaning. I haven’t even started.
The last few days of the year, but especially on the 31st, laundry covers the poles in my neighborhood. Everything washable gets washed. Wet patches spill out over the narrow roads. Every surface, inside and out, gets a wash, wipe or sweep. The thoroughness of it all is obvious even from the outside.
Of course, every culture has its cleaning rituals, spring-cleaning, changing of dishes and cutlery, and ways of keeping the house safe and livable. But I can’t help but feel culture shock thinking of the American end of the year, which is all about partying, or avoiding partying. The need to let loose is paramount in America. But in Japan, the need to rid the surroundings of last year’s dirt carries potent force.
I’m always reminded to clean because the stores all put out front massive displays of cleaning products—bottles, brooms, towels, sponges, buckets of all descriptions and price ranges.
I’m always tempted to buy them and get into it, of course, and in general, I’ve become cleaner and cleaner and more and more orderly over the years in Japan. But I just don’t feel any of the moral, aesthetic or cultural–or just ritual–pressure to get everything spic and span. I like things to be clean, but I don’t feel any shame when they aren’t.
At the end of the year, rather than clean, I want to unwind, review the year, plan for the next, and relish the inner solitude to mull over the passing of time.
But perhaps that’s what everyone in my neighborhood is also thinking while they’re cleaning?
Down the street, cars pulled out of their just-wide-enough parking spots are being given a full wash and wipe. On the other side of Tokyo one shrine offers a special talisman placed on the car for divine protection. Putting that on a dirty car would be an insult to the gods, and probably wouldn’t take effect. Everything must be cleaned for the transition from one year to the next, from one state—dirty, old, used—to the next—clean, refreshed and ready.
The same applies to offices, where the tradition of everyone joining in to clean up the office together is as common as going out for bonenkai or forget-the-year parties. Big cleaning is a sort of forget-the-dirt party, getting rid of the last year’s metaphorical—and actual—dirt so the year can be started clean.
I love this ritual, though at a distance. Even though I don’t join in myself, I still get the benefit.
I feel like everything around me really is cleaner at the start of the year. It’s not just imagined. Storefronts and interiors are spiffed up. My gym’s pool is drained, cleaned and refilled. Cars gleam in the sun. Windows sparkle. The very air of Tokyo feels fresher and purer.