Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
I’ve written it before: During the Edo times it was said about the big city that besides Ise merchants’ shops, Inari shrines, brawls and fires, the other thing found in abundance was dog excrements; it’s hard to think these words when describing Tokyo, even when referring to its ancestor of 150 years ago. Cleanliness is one of the first things the visitor notices in Japan and despite the wisecrack above, it was equally conspicuous not only during the Tokugawa years but much, much earlier: reports about the Japanese’s cleanliness –as it pertains both to their body and their cities- can be found in travelogues of Westerners and Chinese and if what I read is to be believed, some of them go back as early as the 4th century. And even though I suspect these reports say more about those who write them than about the Japanese, it seems that an inherent need for keeping things clean is a very old affair in this land.
It might have to do with Shinto, the ancient religion that doesn’t differentiate between the literal and the metaphorical “unclean”; pure and tainted as polar opposites are more important to the old texts than the moral dipole of good and evil. The gods who gave birth to Japan used to bathe all the time in the waters surrounding it and their, true or perceived, descendants preserved this habit both symbolically, before they pray in a shrine or temple, and literally: as I was saying the other day, Japan is the only country I know where “going on vacation” means “going to bathe” and its language the only one I know where the adjective “clean” (kirei/きれい) also means “beautiful”. It’s also the only country I know where the streets are so clean while there are no public trashcans available: they were discarded after the terrorist attack with the sarin gas in Tokyo’s metro almost exactly 20 years ago.
On the other hand, it would be inaccurate to describe Japan as a vast clean room like the ones found in microchip factories: garbage is there, it’s just that it’s much less than one would expect. If you were to look closer, you would find it in narrow alleys around stations, often in beaches or other out-of-town locations, in the aftermath of festivals and other public events, in the baskets of parked bicycles or under the seats of trains. And the night wanderers will, perhaps, be surprised to find out there is a reason that in various places, not always off the beaten path, there are signs discouraging people from urinating in public. Is all this a reaction to “kappeki” (潔癖), fastidiousness that borders on the psychological disorder? I wouldn’t rule it out but personally I tend to believe that it’s one more proof that contrary to what many lovers of Japan believe –and what many Japanese advertise- people are the same everywhere.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.
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