Japan - cleaning on the curriculum

3rd of March 2017
Japan - cleaning on the curriculum

In previous editions of ECJ correspondent Bobbie van der List has brought an overview of the Japanese cleaning industry, illustrating the enormous importance people place on cleaning. Visiting the cleaners of the Shinkansen trains, for instance, provided an interesting insight into the thoroughness and efficiency of cleaners, but also their position in society. But where does this ‘cleaning mentality’ come from?

In order to find out, he visited a Tokyo-based elementary school, where children are taught and expected to clean their own classroom on a daily basis.

The deputy principal Ms. Hamao greets us on a Friday afternoon at the gates of the Azabu Elementary School, right in the middle of the expat area Azabu. She bows kindly, just as the security staff member right beside her. Media attention is nothing new to them: they have received visits from various media outlets and they’re more than happy to share their thoughts on cleaning with ECJ.

The importance of cleanliness already starts at the front door: on the right side a big wooden closet. We are expected to place our shoes in one of the smaller boxes; in exchange we get indoor shoes. A first humble lesson in keeping the school clean: don’t bring in any dirt from outside. After that we are allowed to enter and head to the second grade children.

Excited to clean

The second graders are neatly seated in their classroom, plates of rice and soup on their desks. Interestingly, the food is served by one of their classmates. The late Japanese author Yutaka Okihara wrote about this phenomenon in his book Gakko Soji (School Cleaning):

“This lunch routine contains several moral messages: no work, not even the dirty work of cleaning, is too low for a student; all should share equally in common tasks; the maintenance of the school is everyone’s responsibility.”

Teacher Ms Mukai explains that all children are expected to take part in serving out lunch, bring it to the classroom, collecting it, and returning it to the kitchen. Suddenly the bell rings; children start running around, their excitement makes you think they are going on a field trip. When we ask the teacher why they are so excited she tells us: “It is time to clean!”

The tables are pushed to the back of the classroom. One of the seven-year-old boys accidentally pushes over his desk, causing his drawer to fall out. Pencils are scattered across the floor. Not to worry however, since his classmates directly kneel down beside him to collect the pencils. It illustrates the group mentality of these youngsters.

Bring a washing cloth to school

Next, the boys and girls of Azabu Elementary School take their washing cloth (which they are supposed to buy themselves and bring to school everyday). One of the girls, seven-year-old Koko, enjoys cleaning the classroom: “We bring this from our home, we have to. I like to clean and I clean at home as well. It’s not difficult at all.”

But when do they usually start with cleaning? “They are expected to start cleaning when they are six or seven years old, so when they’re first graders”, says Mukai. In European schools cleaning is sometimes introduced as a form of punishment. This is definitely not the case in Japanese schools, she says. “The children in my class enjoy cleaning up, they never considered it as a punishment,” she clarifies.

And how do they typically respond to the notion of having to clean up their classroom, at the start of their first year in elementary school?

“Usually they never did this at home, they don’t know how to use a broom or dustpan. So we teach them at the beginning of the year. But they know this is part of school, it is normal to them,” Mukai explains. The Japanese term for students cleaning the classroom is gakko soji and it is an important part of the Japanese educational curriculum.

The latter is further explained in a book called Looking into the Lives of Children, where the Japanese cleaning approach is explained in detail. The book states: The ultimate goal of Japanese education is to foster the student’s ability to become a fully integrated and productive member of Japanese society.

Therefore, Gakko Soji is viewed by teachers and administrators as an essential part of the daily school curriculum. Additionally, students develop a strong sense of pride and ownership in their
schools and the control they have over classroom management.

Cleaning part of the learning process

When Ms Humao is asked about the Japanese law regarding children working in classrooms, she refers to the cleaning as a crucial element of education: “We have such a curriculum in Japan that cleaning is an integral part of the classes and part of the learning process.”

According to Mukai there is no underlying philosophy when it comes to cleaning at a young age: “It is not so serious, not a philosophy. We just want to teach them - if you use something or spend time in a certain place, whether that’s a classroom or your own room, you need to clean it up yourself,” Mukai continues. “It is our custom, to us it comes very naturally”, says the teacher.

Does this ever cause friction with parents, who might have different views on seeing their children clean? The first answer to that is a resolute no. “We have foreign children (there is a big expat community in this particular area) and they are not used to this, so it is more difficult to teach them.”

And how does it affect later behaviour? When we ask one of the children, a seven-year-old boy, he replies, surprised at the question if he ever litters outside: “No, I’m a kid, I don’t do that!” Then he goes back to the broom, his favourite cleaning instrument. “I like to keep things clean especially with this broom.” The thoroughness we already witnessed with the Japanese professional cleaners in the Shinkansen is also reflected in the cleaning moral with this young boy. He goes right under a difficult-to-reach a corner of the classroom, underneath a box.

Helping each other

Mukai smiles and explains that it is not so common to use a broom to clean the house in Japan. “At home we use a vacuum cleaner.” So why not use one in the classrooms? She starts laughing. “You need to learn how to clean using these instruments, with a broom and a dustpan.”

But luckily the second graders don’t have to do everything themselves. Two sixth graders join the class, to assist the youngest pupils with jobs that are a little too difficult for them. Again, this is a good example of the group-focused mentality, which is nurtured at a very young age.

Some jobs, however, are better left to the professional cleaners, says Hamao. “For example, the students don’t have to clean the washrooms.” According to some English language media reports Japanese children do all the cleaning in Japanese elementary schools. But in reality there is a janitor – also in at Azabu Elementary School. “The janitor is responsible for cleaning the bathroom, as well as other jobs such as painting, repairing broken lights, or broken windows, these kinds of chores,” Hamao explains.

Before we leave we just want to make sure that the cleaning process is not just a charade, neatly performed for naïve foreign media. So we sneak to one of the other classrooms to see if the children there are just as excited as Ms Mukai’s pupils. In all classrooms children are actively involved and most of them seem to have a great time.

Becoming a good citizen

Although the children seem to be nurtured in a way that makes them think of cleaning as a natural part of life; you need to go back a bit further to fully understand the Japanese attitude towards cleaning. Japanese author Okihara thoroughly investigated the roots of Japanese attitudes towards cleaning. He writes that in Shintoism and Buddhism – the main religions of Japan – it is understood that cleaning means keeping the mind as well as the body and surrounding places clean.

Eventually this led many Japanese educators to think of gakko soji as “an essential school experience that encourages a child’s sense of responsibility, cooperation, cleanliness, interpersonal and socialisation skills and duty towards the community and society” (Yutaka Okihara).

Cleaning, Okihara continues in his book, is therefore much more than a goal in itself, but rather a tool to reach a more important goal.

The purpose of gakko soji, as an aspect of education in Japanese public schools, is not to teach specific moral values but to foster a child’s skills to become a functional member of society. This component of education in the Japanese curriculum includes an emphasis on acquisition of well-mannered behaviour in the social context: respect for law and order within the society; and a sense of social duty and responsibility.

The school maintenance program, gakko soji, is seen as one of the most effective school experiences for providing lessons in these three main objectives of moral education.


Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited