Cleaning in Japan - community ritual

17th of November 2020
Cleaning in Japan - community ritual

It’s something oddly Japanese: men and women in office attire roaming the streets looking for rubbish. Usually they won’t find anything as streets are spotless most of the time, but it serves more than just that purpose - writes Bobbie van der List.

On a Monday afternoon in the Marunouchi district of Japan’s capital Tokyo most business men and women on the street return to their offices from a lunch break. Yet, there’s an interesting ritual unfolding right in front of me. A group of formally dressed white-collared workers roam the street looking for rubbish. With orange vests and armed with tong and polybag, they seem to enjoy the cleaning task.

Or is it more than just a cleaning task? To get the answer to that question I talk with Shin Ohmori, a professor of Economics at the Nihon University College of Economics of Tokyo, who has studied company cleaning extensively, also in a corporate context.

He tells me cleaning is a crucial element in Japan’s business environment. “Historically Japanese companies are very much concerned with the maintenance and cleaning of workspaces in general. Japanese companies always placed great importance on the acts of souji – cleaning – and seiri seiton – sorting,” says Ohmori.

Already from a young age children get familiar with cleaning their classroom, as we illustrated in a previous article about classroom cleaning, but this practice seems to continue upon entering the corporate world. “The result is that Japanese companies came to appreciate a clean and tidy working space,” says Omori.

Why does the professor think companies place such an emphasis on cleaning? “The first reason is because cleaning has an obvious and positive effect on business,” he tells me. “Companies who optimise their souji and seiri seiton often have a higher productivity and revenue, so that’s the obvious benefit.”

On top of that, Ohmori continues, there’s a trickle-down effect of staff involvement with cleaning that few people expect. “For example in factories, there’s a strong believe that good maintenance and cleaning can prevent accidents and mistakes from happening. If workers clean themselves they will notice potential malfunctions. Preventing small malfunctions can potentially prevent big problems for production in a factory.”

Staff morale

According to Professor Ohmori this is also seen outside the building: security guards do several security checks a day checking everything from door locks to unattended bags or throwing away waste. His job in a way has become obsolete because of the effort of local businesses partaking in such rituals.

There’s another reason for this cleaning effort, says Ohmori: “In many companies, motivation and morale of staff  has improved due to such team work efforts. There are several Japanese companies that experience many unexpected benefits by cleaning and organising themselves.”

Panasonic, a worldwide leader in the development of diverse electronics technologies and solutions for customers in consumer electronics, is a perfect example of a firm that believes in the magic of cleaning up, but not in the sense of Japanese national Marie Kondo – author of the book about the life-changing magic of tidying up - the company sees cleaning as a way to connect people and communities, through cleaning activities, a spokesperson says.

For example, the company organises cleaning activities along the Tsurumi river basin. Participation is not obligatory but due to positive stories shared by colleagues, there is a lot of interest to take part in the collective cleaning activity. “And we create a river environment where children can play and get acquainted with the river.”

Another example happens outside of the capital Tokyo, in the most southern island Kyushu. Panasonic’s Minoshima division has a cleaning routine as part of its broader community contribution activities. Panasonic staff are often seen in the area around their workplace to clean, “to contribute to the local community”, says the spokesperson. Then there is their Kamoi branch in Kanagawa where staff clean up the Kamoi river as part of ‘vegetation contribution activities.’

Last November, with the cooperation of each department, Panasonic cleaned the roads around the business sites in Tokyo as well. Workers were said to feel ‘refreshed’ mentally and physically, and started their day ‘pleasantly’. This is also part of Panasonic’s local community contribution activities.
People in charge of the social contribution committee at Pasona Group, a staffing solution provider in Tokyo, take great pride in contributing to challenges in society, and they have cleaning initiatives throughout the country.

Impact on society

“Companies have a lot of effect on a great many things, not only for profit but also in terms of their impact on society. With that in mind we started this committee, and cleaning is one field. People throughout the country want to do something in the neighbourhood where they live, what is it we can do first? Usually that’s cleaning. The question is what can we do right now to help society? For example, beach cleaning activities in places with plastic problems, we went there and cleaned the beaches,” the spokesperson tells me.

But that’s just one example, there are other activities that Pasona Group started a long time ago. “We decided to clean mountains close to our office, with all sorts of people participating - not only Pasona Group - but also soccer teams, and even locals in the neighbourhood. For 16 years now, we’ve been doing that and last time 150 people took part!”

Having fun

Other regions do the same – for example in Kuba, Ibaraki district, a branch started doing the same. “Staff at Panasonic can bring family and friends, afterwards we provide a barbecue party that doesn’t produce waste. It’s about communicating with each other, having fun, bringing family, a great way to bond,” Pasona Group’s head of PR tells me. “Every time we come back we see less and less rubbish, it’s great to see this impact.”

The recruitment company also has initiatives in Tokyo: “We have held activities in Otemachi, on Earth Day we all wear red t-shirts, with Pasona’s logo on it. If other companies see us, they might want to do the same, and we offer other organisations help on how to organise cleaning activities outside of their office. We can teach them our know-how, it can possibly create opportunities in the future.

"We come up with events such as: who picked up the most rubbish, it’s always good to add that competitive element’,” she says with a smile. “It’s about having fun and looking forward to participating the next time we have a similar event!” Another event is their annual Tsukuba Trail Cleaning Challenge, where 100-150 participants hike along a trail while cleaning up the
surrounding area.

If you think these companies are exceptions, you are mistaken: a call to several big corporations tells us that a lot of companies are invested in this kind of clean-up activities.


Cyberdyne, a technology start-up which is located near Tokyo, actively partook in clean-up activities after the typhoon Hagibis struck in Tokyo, but also during other natural disasters that happened in Japan. And Suntory, a beverages company, tells me it has cleaning initiatives near their production plants as part of its effort to contribute to a clean environment, and contribute to the local community is which its plant is located.


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