Case study from Japan - cleaning as a life changer

29th of April 2021
Case study from Japan - cleaning as a life changer

In Japan, some people are tired from overwork, especially in the metropolis Tokyo. One Buddhist monk wants to change this, and he thinks cleaning is the way to go. Bobbie van der List reports.

It’s at 7.25 am in the morning when the commute to work is at its peak in the Kamiyacho district of central Tokyo. While most people walk from the station’s exits to the enormous surrounding skyscrapers, just a few people take a turn into a hidden alleyway. In this passage, one can spot Buddhist temple Komyoji, a surprisingly quiet gateway in an otherwise busy and hectic metropolitan area, run by monk Shoukei Matsumoto.

Monk Matsumoto greets around 15 visitors, most of whom live in this area. Twice a month, he opens the doors to community members or people from other districts. They chant, clean, and reflect - three essential elements of Buddhism.

The meetings are referred to by the monk as Temple Morning; they begin at 7:30 and last until 8:30. Whoever desires to participate is welcome, and the attendees have different backgrounds: there’s an older lady, a ceo of an IT company, a salaryman, and a monk from a nearby temple.
At precisely 7.30 Matsumoto starts chanting in front of a Buddhist altar, around 15 people are seated on three lines of chairs behind him, or sit on the floor. They repeat his words, and a sense of calm flows around the temple room, which is filled with a unique scent.

As soon as the chanting part is over, all participants step forward to pay their respects to the deities and bow several times. Outside they’re awaited by Matsumoto; he holds a few brooms in his hands. “Who wants to clean the graveyards?”, he asks.

While attendees start mindfully sweeping the pavements in between the graves, he tells me how he got into organising the morning sessions. “I have tried many ways to connect with the community: a temple café, which we still organise every day, and artists occasionally play music here.”

But then in October 2017, he started with the temple morning sessions. He has now hosted 63 meetings, and it’s a great success. On Twitter he tweets about the gatherings and the importance of cleaning for a monk, but also how cleaning can help one grow physically and mentally.

“After trying many different things, I finally found what is most valuable to people: routines. Our bodies are made up of more than 90 per cent routines”, he explains. And the most crucial routine of a monk is cleaning, he says, and it takes up much of a monk’s day. “To be honest with you, I prefer cleaning over meditation,” Matsumoto says. “In practice attendees get to experience what monks do on a daily basis.”

Why is cleaning so important? “When you clean outside, every morning at the same time, the physical work brings a certain satisfaction, and the routine brings relief from daily stress. On top of that, you feel the change of seasons, you notice how the sunrise changes with time, and how the colour of the leaves transform.”

This is what 39-year old Miho Inuma likes the most about the sessions. “A year ago, I found out about it while I was drinking coffee on the terrace. Sometimes the monk serves tea and sweets; employees from the neighbouring companies come here to eat their lunch, and order a drink. And then I saw the temple morning session.”

“This hour is very dear to me. It makes me happy when I wake up early and do these simple cleaning chores. You feel the change of the seasons, I feel the change, the sunrise changes, you are part of a community, you share that feeling with friends. We often don’t even know each other’s names, there are many newcomers, but still, we connect.”

Other participants feel the same way including 23-year old Mai Kuroda. “I moved from Okayama to Tokyo recently, and I was surprised to see how tired people in Tokyo look, so this is a good way for people to help each other”, she tells me while holding a broom in one hand and a plastic bag with leaves in the other.

Miyake Shunjiro, 26, stands next to her, it’s his first day. “I’m surprised by this place, it’s beautiful. You can feel the spirituality, I am astonished.”

The final part of temple morning consists of a roundtable talk, community members can ask questions to monk Matsumoto. Miyake, the office worker, tells us about his harsh working conditions. “I work 80 hours a month, on top of my normal schedule. I’ve been working at this company for a year now. People don’t have time to reflect physically and mentally. How can I find a better balance?”, he asks Matsumoto.

Later on Matsumoto tells me that all sorts of people come to the gatherings, they often come because they want to make a change in their life. He believes in the therapeutic importance of cleaning, especially in a country where overwork and subsequent mental health issues have become common.

“If you clean for five minutes, you will see certain changes in people. If you see leaves on the ground and you clean it up, you immediately see results, it is a small achievement. The temple morning session makes people self-aware; it builds confidence and brings a sense of real living.”

He also sees how cleaning can help people relieve stress. “From cleaning, we can learn how to overcome perfectionism. Why do people in Japan work for so long? My observation is that it is because of perfectionism: if you try to do everything perfectly, it requires an enormous effort. In terms of quality, 80 per cent is attainable, but when you aim for 100 per cent, it will require a huge effort, and you’ll never reach that perfection.”

Yet, people in Japan still aim for perfection. “You see it everywhere in Japan, the exaggerated smiles of store clerks, or over-the-top service by companies. One needs to let go of that drive for perfection”, he believes. “I think perfectionism is a reason so much stress arises. Cleaning is a way to learn how to overcome that desire for perfection. If you clean with a broom, and you see after cleaning that a leaf falls, what then? You have to leave it at 90 per cent quality.”

His favourite cleaning tool? “The broom, the sound is wonderful.”


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