The world watched in awe as the Japanese Football team bowed out of the Fifa World Cup 2018 with a match that is clearly the best yet this year. Many have touted this the cruelest exit in the history of the World Cup. But, Team Japan (players and supporters alike) ensured that people remember the story of Japan with pride, now and forever. In an unprecedented move, the Japanese team cleaned the locker room sparkling clean, and left a thank-you note for the host nation, after the heart-breaking loss. The supporters did the same in the stands that they occupied for the matches. The Japanese may have lost the match on paper, but the story of Brand Japan is a clear winner. Japan’s cleanliness is not a new obsession though. The story that ties Japan and cleanliness together dates back many centuries and makes for a very interesting read.
The Impact of Shintoism
Shintoism*, one of Japan’s most pervading religions, has been around in a formal sense for over 1450 years, coexisting with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The name Shinto is based on the Chinese character Shin-tao which roughly means “Way of the Gods.” Shinto has no fixed doctrine, no founder, and no collection or canon of sacred texts. Unlike other religions that have a specific theology and doctrine, Shintoism is comprised mainly of myths of the origin of Japan and a series of ritual developed over time.
The origin of Shinto is connected to an awe of nature. One of the core values of the Shinto religion is its reverence of purity. According to Shinto beliefs, physical purity is deeply connected to spiritual purity. The religion encourages followers to see the world through the lenses of ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, rather than ‘good’ and ‘evil’, although the concepts have overlaying connotations. Shinto mentions that Tsumi (pollution) can be physical, moral, or spiritual. The believers practice many physical purifying rituals throughout the day.
Post the World War, Japan was ravaged with parasitic infections, epidemics, and other health hazards. There was, of course, the nuclear radiations polluting their lives as well. This, coupled with the religious belief that they must purify their souls, led the Japanese to focus intently on cleanliness practices.
The Cleansing Practices
The Japanese are meticulous about personal cleanliness. They take several baths a day and definitely before hitting the bed at night. They even take holidays just to bathe! But, there is very specific etiquette to entering a Japanese bath. The Japanese wouldn’t stew in their own filth, so to say. They scrub themselves clean vigorously with a rough nylon towel before they dip in the tub and never use soap in their bath water.
There is a ridiculously large market for anti-bacterial solutions and products in the country. Some banks and shops even have anti-bacterial chemicals on all their counter-tops. All vehicle owners are expected to keep their drives clean. This includes owners of construction vehicles – cement mixers or dirt haulers. Their owners wash the machines spotless every single night after work. In fact, there is a world-class cleaning crew that cleans every single Shinkansen train in seven minutes straight before each ride. And, yes, they are always gleaming!
What makes cleanliness so easy to achieve and maintain, for the Japanese, is the sense of responsibility that every Japanese has towards the waste they generate. The Japs don’t expect anyone to pick up after them. A nurse cleans the road outside the hospital she works in, a corporate manager does the same for the street outside the office. Of course, it all starts in school, where the children do their own cleaning. Japanese schools do not employ janitors. Community clean-ups are mandatory in the country and citizens are incredibly mindful about disposing of waste. They even wash empty can and jars before putting them in recyclers.
The world is drowning in plastic waste, especially Single-Use Plastic products (Read: Say NO to Single-Use Plastic Products, NOW!) India, especially, is struggling to rouse its citizen to the importance of personal commitment to communal cleaning. For us, the story of Japan’s cleanliness is one of moral education, civil role-modeling, and aspiration. Japan has established a brand through it’s narrative to the world, at the Fifa World Cup and beyond. Let’s hope the world, including our own country people, would be inspired to follow.
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