Out with the dust, in with the new

Ayako Kano and Linda Chance, both scholars of Japan, discuss Oosouji, the traditional New Year’s cleaning.

Man shovels snowy street, which is lined by lanterns and banners with Japanese characters
Oosouji, the traditional New Year's cleaning, begins in mid-December in Japan. (Image: jet dela cruz on Unsplash)

In Japan, many people start prepping for the New Year in mid-December. This big cleanup, called Oosouji, starts around December 13 and continues through the 29th, before cooking for the New Year begins.

“The idea, very generally, is that daily life pollutes the environment and pollutes you—not just physically, but also metaphysically and spiritually,” says Penn’s Ayako Kano, professor of Japanese studies. “Every once in a while, you need to clean it out and purify in order to welcome the deities of the new year.”

Rooted in Shinto and Buddhist practice, Oosouji has become a cultural event. “Folk logic would suggest that it’s closely related to the Shinto path, because cleanliness is an important aspect of that tradition,” says Linda Chance, a Penn associate professor of Japanese language and literature. “The divinities are everywhere and in everything. They don’t like dirt. There are a number of practices that people point to, such as talking off your shoes indoors. It’s a practical thing, but it’s also regarded as respectful and almost religious.”

Oosouji has historical origins in cleaning large spaces: palaces, temples, the shogun’s castle, but now extends to households, businesses, and schools, says Kano, who remembers practicing Oosouji as a child. “You would do this on the last day of classes,” she says. “They would end early and you would do the cleaning, and then you would go home” and clean more.

This contrasts with the United States, where janitorial staff primarily do the work. “Sociologists of Japan have noted this aspect of cleaning, where it’s done by all the members who use the space, whether it’s a clubhouse or gym,” Kano says. Within this, a hierarchy exists, however, with younger students or junior employees taking on a heavier burden.

The communal activity is seen as bonding and character-building, Chance says. “By the time you get into the 20th century, people forged a connection that this is something you need to do to be a good member of society.”

Both Kano and Chance note the gender inequalities within New Year’s preparations, particularly during Oosouji, which comes with heavily codified expectations and a mental load placed on women. “You start by making a calendar,” Chance says, which involves divvying up the tasks between days and household members to clean areas not typically addressed, like kitchen vent fans.

“As a practice that is expected of women, it dates to the early modern period, the 17th century,” Chance says. “The outfit for Oosouji is rubber gloves and aprons.” As part of her research, she tracks “how and what kinds of aprons are used to indicate how women are supposed to behave.”

“Men are supposed to help as well, but there’s a gendering of the cleaning itself,” Kano says, noting that men are typically responsible for tasks perceived as heavy labor, or those requiring a ladder. Putting up the New Year’s decorations after Oosouji is typically in the male realm, “maybe because it involves tools,” Kano says. “If you have adult males in the family who work outside of the home,” there is an understanding that this is done after work hours when they can help, she says, “although that’s not always the case.”

“Fewer and fewer people are doing the big clean up each year,” Chance says, as women move into the workforce and households shift from a larger group of extended relatives with many helping hands to smaller nuclear families.

Japanese newspapers report women wanting to streamline housework, Kano says, which “in Japan, tends to be unnecessarily time consuming.” There are countless YouTube channels devoted to morning cleaning rituals, a daily undertaking. “There is discussion about whether this is really necessary, this kind of labor-intensive housework that is premised on a woman being at home,” she says. “In single-parent families, or when women are working long hours outside of the home, it’s just not possible.”

How the pandemic will affect Oosouji remains to be seen. Caregiving tasks have increased during this period, as women are expected to work and take care of children at home, so time may be more limited, Kano says. On the other hand, people have spent more time in their homes during 2020. COVID-19 has limited traveling and socializing and increased anxieties about disease and infection. “There has been so much pressure to clean and disinfect because of the pandemic,” Chance says.