Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

The stereotype holds that Japan is a meticulously clean country. Emma Ford looks at the difference between public and private behavior, and separates fact from fiction. (Picture: poosan / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Are The Japanese Really THAT Clean?

Essay   Posted on October 04, 2018 in cleaning, souji, household, society • By Emma Ford • Read Related Articles

Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing was a huge seller across the globe, and started off a decluttering craze. Her approach draws a parallel with other rules and methods that the Japanese follow.

Link: The Kondo Method

8 Lessons Our Editor Learned from the Decluttering Bible
Our editor tested Marie Kondo’s Japanese art of tidying on her crazy...

One thing no one can deny is that the Japanese respond well to and excel under a set of rules. They make rules for a lot of things that the rest of the world do on the fly. Kakeibo, the art of saving money, is a set of rules of what exactly to do with home finance; kadou, the art of flower arranging; shodou, the art of calligraphy; in fact most of the dou (道) words are the rules, or, literally, the "path" of doing something. Many of the martial arts (karate, kendou, judou, sumou) are basically set rules for fighting and self-defense.

And now, there is a step-by-step guide for tidying up. Kondo’s "radical" approach is that categories of items should be handled, rather than tidying one room at a time. By moving from room to room, she argues, you’ll never clear the clutter. She also advises respecting everything by presenting it well, forgetting nostalgia, and purging, purging, purging. Another unique technique is to fold the clothes in such a way that when you open up your drawers, they look like a neat array of origami sheets.

To me, this wasn’t a particularly Japanese thing, but the common perception seems to be that this is ‘very Japanese’ along with the zen-like minimalist Japanese houses and temples. I guess this is true for the old Buddhist temples (tera), where goods were considered to be surplus to requirements and simple stone gardens with not a lot in had very specific meanings. But what I’ve found on the whole is that the Japanese people, with their propensity to save and not waste, have a LOT of stuff in their houses and love to make piles of things inside their houses.

The minimalist movement in Japan is a relatively new thing and the Kondo movement is almost the start of the zen culture in the home. In fact, I think it’s because of the ゴミ屋敷 (gomi-yashiki; “rubbish houses” – similar to hoarders’ houses so often seen on TV nowadays) taking over Japan that there’s this new young movement to be super minimalist and tidy. A classic image of “実家” (jikka; literally, "true home"), one's childhood home, is one depicted in a famous spin-off of the popular long-running Japanese cartoon Sazae-san (サザエさん), in which the eldest son goes back home and tries to sort the house out. He struggles because of the older generations’ unwillingness to throw anything out. The younger, wasteful generation wanting a sense of minimalism and clean space rather than loads of stuff!

Link: カツオが磯野家をかたずける日 The eldest son of this popular fictitious family goes home once he’s grown up and tidies the family home. So representative of the modern-day Japan.

あの磯野家がゴミ屋敷に?カツオくんが主人公の「実家の片付け」入門書 - 安心介護プレス

If Japan did have a neat-freak or clean image, it is probably because of school kids cleaning the school on a daily basis, which happens in every school, as well as the neat little houses with tatami mats and paper walls. Traditional houses do often have tatami matted rooms which serve as a bedroom with futons, and during the day, the futons are neatly tidied away and table brought out to serve as living and dining room. This is more about using a compact living space more efficiently though, which is easier without bulky Western furniture (and somewhat of a necessity on a tall, narrow island).

There are some figures suggesting that over 10% of rooms in Japan are full of stuff and rubbish. Sadly, in many cases this can stem from mental illnesses such as depression or ‘hikikomori’ where people of all ages become agoraphobic and unable to function as a normal part of society and hide aware in a single room surviving on takeaways or deliveries from family members. There is also of course the issue of depopulation and the aging society, meaning many elderly people are living alone and unable to clean or sort their rooms out. (Unseen Japan touched on this subject recently in our write-up on kodokushi, or dying in isolation.)

Link: Some Horrifying ゴミ屋敷 (gomi-yashiki; Rubbish Houses) in Japan

Messiest Houses in Japan - Blog
Japan is a famously clean and well-organized country. But not everyone here is a neat freak. These may be some of the messiest rooms in Japan.

(JP) Link: 70% of Rubbish Houses Belong to Women of All Sorts of Professions - Even CEOs


It is undeniable though that the public areas in Japan are super clean. The innate and learnt respect for objects and people combined with the homogeneous behavior of the Japanese people and strict policing seem to lend themselves well to a society in which people don’t litter and everyone makes an effort to keep the cities and public areas clean. No doubt the billions of cockroaches in the country that gather toward any old rubbish does play a part in making people want to keep places clean too!

I’d like to end on two real-life accounts from my more recent visits to Japan that amazed me. Not something you’d see elsewhere. Well, certainly not in London, where I live.

I was on the subway, at about 11pm near, Shinjuku in Tokyo. It was still pretty busy with students and commuters going home. One poor red-faced business man clearly had had one too many in the beer garden and was looking very peaky indeed. Needless to say, he was soon sick on the floor in the corner of the train. Now, most people who may be unfortunate enough to find themselves in this situation I think would make a half-hearted attempt to clean the mess up and get off the train at the soonest opportunity. This man, however, took his shirt and tie off, wiped the mess off the floor with his own shirt, neatly packaged it up and carried it off the train as he apologized to the rest of the passengers. All whilst drunk off his ass!

On another visit to Japan, this time in a rural mountain shopping mall, there was a homeless man wandering around carrying all his belongings, trawling through bins looking for cigarette butts and food leftovers. This is a fairly standard sight in London. However, after picking out what he felt was salvageable, he started to remove all the PET bottles and bento boxes from the waste bin and place them neatly in the appropriate recycling bins. He was there for about 20 minutes until he’d sorted as much of the trash as possible.

It would be hard, outside of outright dictatorships, to find any other nation with this level of innate respect for public spaces.

Emma holds an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies from Sheffield University. The child of a Japanese mother, Emma grew up in Japan as well as England, and is fully fluent in both Japanese and English. Emma contributes essays based on her experiences growing up as a child of two cultures.


You May Also Enjoy Reading...

Woman reaching through water. Kowai!!!

Momo: The Horror Hoax Appropriated from Japanese Legend

Essay   By Krys Suzuki Krys Suzuki  ·  April 29, 2019 • Tagged with social media, hoax, urban legend, society, art, yokai

How a sculpture based on a Japanese horror legend became the mascot for a creepy Internet story - and how the artist reacted when he found out about it.

7-11 Convenience Store

Unseen Japan Kaiwa 4: An Inconvenient Conbini

Video   By Jay Andrew Allen  ·  April 27, 2019 • Tagged with economy, business, lifestyle, society

Why has the 24-7 Japanese convenience store suddenly become controversial? How critical are such stores to daily life in Japan? And why did Anthony Bourdain always head to a conbini when he landed in Japan?

Woman in scarf

Burakumin: Japan's Hounded "Untouchables"

Essay   By Alyssa Pearl Fusek  ·  April 01, 2019 • Tagged with equality, society, discrimination, equal rights

While Japan has no formal caste system today, one "underclass" still finds itself routinely hounded and persecuted.

Drowning in a Sea of Trees: Understanding Aokigahara, Japan's "Suicide Forest"

Essay   By Krys Suzuki  ·  March 21, 2019 • Tagged with society, psychology, health, mental health, travel

Why has Aokigahara, a forest full of legend and history, gained notoriety as a haven of death? (TRIGGER WARNING: Sensitive material)

Man in handcuffs

Will Japan Outlaw Corporal Punishment?

News   By Jay Andrew Allen  ·  March 20, 2019 • Tagged with society, psychology, health, mental health

A series of high-profile deaths of kids has led the Abe admin to proffer a ban on corporal punishment. Is this going too far - or an idea whose time has come?