In Japan, cleaning is a public service to be performed by everyone, not relegated to one marginalised section of the society
It is do-it-yourself with a difference, involving no greater technology than brush, broom and cloth. On every normal school day, after a thorough post-lunch brushing of teeth, Japanese school children get down to a more public service for the next 15 minutes : cleaning the school. A starker difference with India’s paranoid aversions to cleaning and cleaners, its high tolerance for dirt, especially when ‘not in my own backyard’, and its determined condemnation of whole sections of society to ‘specialise’ in such work cannot be found.
In Japan, they do more than dwell on their glorious past, and certainly, do not rely on a specific group of people to clear up their filth. They spend a good deal of time and effort on training the young to take care of their surroundings, and especially their toilets. Nothing is left to the vagaries of youth or the mood of the teacher. Cleaning is a part of the primary school curriculum. At Kita-Yamada Elementary School in Osaka, for instance, children from as young an age as six years spend 15 minutes cleaning classrooms, corridors and yes, toilets, with brushes, pails, cloths and brooms (which are then in turn cleaned and put away). No advanced technology or chemical is used here. In the corridors, a Grade VI student is paired with a six-year-old, each doing their systematic part. Students go down on their hands and knees to erase the marks of the morning’s calligraphy class. A brush and sponge are used on already-fairly-clean toilets to produce sparkling ones. By a system of rotating the chores, students are well trained in outdoor and indoor cleaning. Nor is the supervision of the teachers left to chance. Teachers themselves (as well as students) are trained by cleaning professionals (DASKIN is among the most well-known companies) and are provided with instructional sheets with exact directions on how to wield the mop or broom. There is neither shame nor opprobrium attached to these activities. No municipal school employs cleaning staff; professionals may come in twice a year, as do parents when strong chemicals are to be used. But otherwise, the students learn an enduring lesson, collectively and willingly participating in cleaning their spaces and wielding brush and broom, washcloth and rubber, with impressively meticulous care.
Where else, in any part of the world, might one encounter a medieval monks’ toilet or tosu being designated as ‘Important Cultural Property’? Did monks in other parts of the world even enjoy anything more than the great outdoors? Hay on the landing was the preferred choice of many European monarchs, as a visit to Versailles quickly reveals; at best there was the portable chamber pot to be carried off and cleaned by the minions. In our subcontinent, the much-marvelled sanitation systems of the Indus civilisation have left not a trace on subsequent centuries, and certainly not in our modern times,
when the brutal practice of manual scavenging is continued as a monumental vestige – lest we forget – of power that some castes enjoy over others. The lessons in cleaning no doubt account for overall high quality of public toilet usage and maintenance in Japan.
Though workplaces may employ professionals, the token collective cleaning, of the outdoors during fall, for instance, are gentle reminders of the lessons well learned in childhood. Faculty, staff and students at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, for instance, participate in the ritual of cleaning a few times a year.
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