What's behind Japan's curious love of cleanliness?

Danielle Demetriou
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the word kirei in Japanese means both “clean” and “beautiful” - GETTY

It’s been dubbed the seven-minute miracle: teams of high-speed cleaners, with wide smiles and plastic flowers clipped to their hats, leap on board Japanese bullet trains and carry out a meticulous cleaning routine, before the next batch of passengers come on board.

The spectacle, which unfolds with near-mundane regularity every day on train platforms, is not only fascinating to witness (it’s choreographed to the second) – it also offers a glimmer of insight into the nation’s deep-rooted respect for all things clean.

Tokyo has long been famed as a super-sized megalopolis that stubbornly defies its sprawling dimensions and population density by being not only safe and punctual – but also astonishingly kempt.

A gold-star paradigm of urban orderliness, it doesn’t take long after arriving in the Japanese capital to realise that it’s perhaps one of the cleanest cities in the world. It’s apparent from the sparkling airports, the spotless trains, the litter-free streets, even the high-tech public loos (which are also – perhaps unimaginable in other cities – rarely without toilet paper).

Such a commitment to all things clean is even more impressive in the context of its status as one of the most densely packed cities on the planet (the population of greater Tokyo at latest count? 13.8 million).

The Japanese capital is one of the cleanest cities in the world Credit: getty

So where does all this cleanliness come from? It’s perhaps no coincidence that the word kirei in Japanese means both “clean” and “beautiful” – reflecting the deep appeal of all things unsoiled (and the moral transgression associated with anything that isn’t).

The roots of Japan’s near-evangelical passion can perhaps be traced back to the nation’s Shinto belief system, which has long placed an emphasis on ritual purification.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that value of cleanliness is deeply entrenched into the nation’s social values – and, as I’ve recently learnt while raising two young daughters in Tokyo, it’s something that starts very early.

It’s not unusual for parents (myself included) to be presented with neatly-packed bags of their child’s used nappies when picking them up from nurseries at the end of each day – so they can take them home and put them in their own bins.

Meanwhile, along with sports kits and pencil cases, I recently had to buy and label several dish cloths for my six-year-old who has just started her first year at Japanese elementary school – as all children are taught from day one to thoroughly clean up the classroom and tidy away lunch every day.

This focus on keeping things clean is apparent in all walks of daily life and, perhaps most tellingly, is motivated not by any individualist urge, but out of respect for other people in society.

Streets are free from rubbish, despite the fact that there are very few pubic bins, because people simply take their rubbish home with them (just like the nappies). Witness the Japanese fans at last summer’s football World Cup who took a brief break from celebrating victory over Colombia to clean up rubbish discarded on the floor of the stadium. 

And those train passengers travelling with white surgical facemasks are not trying to protect themselves – they don’t want to give other people their germs. 

An unselfish respect for the harmony of collective society is something of a national trait in Japan – reflected also in its razor-sharp punctuality and its famed mastery of omotenashi, which loosely translates as Very Impressive Japanese Hospitality.

Another manifestation of the nation’s passion for all things clean is embodied in one particularly popular recent export: the Marie Kondo decluttering boom. The Japanese cleaning guru, whose philosophy is based on only keeping things that spark joy, has led to millions thanking their socks and rolling up T-shirts like sushi around the world, in the hope of gaining a taste of minimalist enlightenment in their daily lives (or at the very least, a home that resembles a Muji store).

Bearing in mind Japan’s meticulous mastery of keeping tidy, it’s perhaps little surprise that a recent boom in overseas tourists travelling to Japan has raised issues relating to cleanliness.

Testimony to this? The mild media furor in Japan that flared up this month over the issue of how to ask tourists behave a little better in public, without offending them.

Marie Kondo Credit: Denise Crew/Netflix

More precisely, officials in Kyoto are apparently deeply concerned that foreign visitors to the city’s famed Nishiki Market are often spotted eating food while walking around (eating in public in Japan is almost as socially taboo as blowing your nose).

In addition to concerns over growing quantities of litter, they were also worried that tourists would injure themselves with food skewers – resulting in stores being asked to display signs written in several languages urging people not to eat and walk at the same time.

Meanwhile, officials in Kamakura Prefecture last month introduced an “ordinance” aimed at improving street manners among visiting tourists – urging people not to risk ruining locals’ clothing by eating food while walking along the street.

So if a trip to Tokyo is on the cards, make sure you follow the nation’s unwritten “clean rules” – and if in doubt about how to behave, simply head to the nearest bullet train terminal and watch the seven-minute miracle in action.