When I first stepped foot in Tokyo, I was struck by how clean and tidy the city was. In fact, this is so often the case for tourists that Japan has gotten a reputation as one of the cleanest countries in the world. So why is Japan so clean?
Japan has a strong culture of cleanliness. It is not uncommon to see signs posted on buildings, reminding people to keep the area free from litter and trash, and workers keeping the streets and many train stations spotless. For the most part, yes, Japan’s streets are impeccably clean.
However, the full answer is a little more complicated, and a little bit of digging shows that perhaps Japan is not quite as spotless as it would seem on the surface.
Japan's Long History Of Cleanliness
Unlike many western societies (who were throwing their poop into the streets far too recently for my liking), cleanliness has been a part of Japanese culture since the 12th century, when Zen Buddhism made its way to the country from China. Cleanliness is an integral and central part of Zen Buddhism, and daily activities such as cooking and cleaning are considered to be part of the spiritual routine.
They’re as important as meditating, and in fact, all activities in Zen Buddhism are thought to be opportunities to practice the religion. In an interview with BBC News, Eriko Kuwagaki of Shinshoji Temple says “Washing off the dirt both physically and spiritually plays an important role in the daily practice”.
While introduced hundreds of years ago, it’s clear to anyone who visits a temple today that these beliefs still hold strong – you won’t find a speck of dust in any single corner of a temple. Around 90 million people consider themselves to be Buddhists in modern-day Japan, although for the most part, most do not practice on a daily basis. Still, the fundamentals of the faith have clearly permeated the population in a permanent way.
Since there are many countries that primarily practice Buddhism, you might wonder why Japan stands out above the rest. While Buddhism did bring a large number of new cleanliness rituals to the country, Japanese people were already practicing their own indigenous religion – Shinto.
Shintoism also puts a heavy emphasis on cleanliness, and those who practice it believe that to be clean is to be pure. A key belief is kegare (dirt or impurity), and believers complete purification rituals to ward off kegare.
The combination of those two systems of belief means that by the 1600s, Japan was a notably clean place, especially when compared to other nations at the time. The first English mariner to visit Japan, William Adams, observed that the nobility was “scrupulously clean”, and enjoyed “pristine sewers, latrines, and steam baths of scented wood”.
At the same time, the streets of England were overflowing with excrement, and apparently, the Japanese were “appalled” by their visitors’ lack of attention to personal cleanliness. (Quotes taken from the book Samurai William, by Giles Milton)
It’s clear that Japan’s clean streets aren’t a novelty; their history clearly shows the value they place on cleanliness. But what about now, in modern times?
Modern-day Japan… still pretty clean!
If you visit Japan today your first foray into the cities will likely leave you impressed by how clean they are. Everyone notices it at first. It becomes particularly more astounding when you notice that there aren’t any trash cans anywhere on the streets either, as they were removed after an unfortunate terrorist attack in 1995. To many of us from the West, this is astounding.
I don’t know where you’re from, but here in the U.K., some people (not all) dump trash on the ground even when they’re a few steps away from a bin. While we do have street cleaners that keep the city centers clean, they still have a constant battle against people’s disregard for being considerate and tidy. From my experiences in other countries, this is not an isolated problem.
You’d expect the most densely populated area of Tokyo to have a similar problem – a city so busy must have a problem with garbage, right? In fact, Japan seems cleaner than most other countries in the world at first glance. While we’re going to discuss the areas of Japan that perhaps aren’t as clean as they seem, let’s take a look at a few of the reasons it is.
Education On Cleanliness Starts At A Young Age
From the moment they begin school, children are taught that they are responsible for the messes they make. Japanese schools do not have janitors, because at the end of every day the children clean up. It reinforced to them during this daily activity that they should take responsibility for the impact they have on their own environment – if they’re messy and careless through the day, then they’re the ones who will have to clean it up.
While there has been some criticism that this act has become a little perfunctory, and children aren’t really engaged in making that connection between what they’re doing and why, for the most part, this does encourage them to think about their surroundings and others in them - which leads us to our next point.
Social Consciousness Or Peer Pressure?
What other people think about their neighbors is a huge driver of cleanliness in Japan. While Japanese people tend to be reserved, they have a collectivist approach to living, and there is a huge focus on the “group” as opposed to the “individual”. There are strong expectations that everyone acts in a way that reflects the best interests of the group, the community, or the city in general.
This means that people take extra care to be clean and tidy – they take their rubbish home with them; they take care not to make or leave a mess in public; they smoke only in designated areas so as not disturb non-smokers; they wear face masks when they have a cold to prevent germs from spreading…and the list goes on.
Many people, including Japanese officials and governmental types, say that this is because they care greatly for their community. They feel a strong sense of pride in their surroundings, and they want to ensure each individual is doing the best for the people around them, including keeping things meticulously clean.
The evidence goes a long way to support this. There are monthly clean-ups in most communities, in which office workers and shop staff clean the streets and complete upkeep. Even children participate, further reinforcing their school routine.
But many people, including Japan’s residents, say that the reason for this is peer pressure, not a strong sense of community and that Japanese people aren’t necessarily cleaner than anyone else behind closed doors. Obviously, this being the truth would be less desirable than the alternative, but personally I’m not sure it’s such a negative thing.
Perhaps every person who chooses to live in a community would benefit from a little more accountability to those around them. Is there such a thing as positive peer pressure? And would this fall into that bracket? It would be hard to say which statement is more accurate, but either way, there’s no denying that it leads to some very clean streets.
There Are Large Fines For Littering
One of the most compelling reasons that Japan’s residents choose to take their trash home and keep their streets clean is a financial one. Known as “illegal dumping”, littering carries a penalty of up to five years (yes, you read that correctly), or alternately litterers could be fined up to 10 million yen ($92’000) regardless of whether you’re a tourist or a resident.
Even large companies are made to be accountable and can face fines of up to 100 million yen ($921’000) for disposing of industrial waste illegally. Japan’s government has extensive rules for getting rid of waste and recycling, but even if it didn’t the fines are a pretty strong incentive to keep your trash to yourself.
They’re fond of rituals
Whether it stems from their Shinto and Buddhist roots or is simply how their society has developed and changed in general over the centuries, Japanese people are excellent at maintaining habits and rituals. This begins in school, where the schedule is strict and regimented and continues throughout their lives.
As we’ve mentioned, Japan’s rules for recycling and disposing of trash are extensive and complicated, but not intimidating to a nation that has been taught to follow the rules. The fact that those rituals of cleaning and tidying begin at such a young age, and then are expected as the social norm throughout a Japanese person’s life, are of the strongest motivating forces of Japan’s clean reputation.
Strong National Pride
Japanese people in general are very conscious of how they appear to other nations, and foreigners within their country. It’s imperative that they give a positive impression, as they don’t want other people to assume that they’re “bad people” without the ability to clean up after themselves.
Nowhere was this more evident than at the FIFA World Cup events in 2014 and 2018, after which the Japanese fans stayed behind after matches to clean up trash that had been left in the stadium. Even the Japanese football team left their locker room in pristine condition. Even Japanese rock festivals are known for being pristine, with smokers encouraged to bring their own ashtrays and people keeping their trash with them.
But what’s notable about most of these instances is they’re all very public affairs. Some of Japan’s residents say that Japan is only clean on the surface where visitors are likely to see, which leads to our next question.
Is Japan Really Clean As People Say It Is
In short, no, not really. While there definitely is a stark difference between Tokyo’s clean streets and other large metropolitan cities around the world, if you dig just a little into some of the smaller streets or more rural areas of Japan you might find some serious trash. Residents of Japan, both native and foreign, say that Japan’s cities are the cleanest where tourists are most likely to see, and then much like any other city where they aren’t.
In fact, some go so far as to say that their beaches are dirtier than many others around the world due to littering. How can a country with such a clean reputation around the world have a secret problem with litter?
The answer is complicated but could be attributed in part to two things: national pride, and peer pressure. It’s important to the Japanese government that their cities are seen as immaculately clean, which is why most of the busy, tourist-filled areas are kept that way. It’s also important to residents that they’re seen as a clean country, which is why Japanese people are so conscientious about taking their litter home with them.
Many Japanese residents are as messy or untidy as anywhere else in the world as long as nobody is watching, and some even go so far as to hoard their recycling in the house because they don’t have the time or energy to sort it and drop it off at a recycling bin.
Please let me make it clear that this is an observation made by people who live in Japan, and is in no way my experience or opinion since I haven’t lived there (yet…a girl can dream). I think the fact that so many seem to share these conflicting views online tells me that Japanese people are just as complicated as anyone else in the world and that it’s possible our heightened expectations of their country being so clean leads most foreigners to put them on a pedestal of some kind.
I also think that keeping parts of these huge metropolitan areas as clean as they do without a trash can in sight is a massive achievement, regardless of whether it’s achieved through peer pressure or genuine altruism.
What do you think? Have you experienced both sides of Japan’s relationship with cleanliness? Let us know what you think in the comments!