In Japan, many people start preparing for the New Year in mid-December. This great cleansing, called Oosouji, begins around December 13 and continues until the 29th, before cooking for the New Year begins.
“The idea, very generally, is that everyday life pollutes the environment and pollutes you, not only physically, but also metaphysically and spiritually,” says Penn’s. Ayako Kano, professor of Japanese studies. “From time to time you must cleanse and purify it in order to welcome the deities of the new year.”
Rooted in shintoism and Buddhist practical, Oosouji has become a cultural event. “Popular logic suggests that it is closely related to the Shinto way, because cleanliness is an important aspect of this tradition,” explains Linda Chance, Penn Associate Professor of Japanese Language and Literature. “The gods are everywhere and in everything. They don’t like dirt. There are a number of practices that people are reporting, such as talking about indoor shoes. It is a practical thing, but it is also considered respectful and almost religious.
Oosouji has historical origins in cleaning large spaces: palaces, temples, shogun castle, but now extends to households, businesses and schools, says Kano, who remembers practicing Oosouji as a child. “You would do this on the last day of class,” she said. “They would end early and you would do the housework, then go home” and clean more.
This contrasts with the United States, where janitorial staff primarily do the work. “Sociologists in Japan have noted this aspect of cleaning, where it is done by all members who use the space, whether it is a clubhouse or a gym,” says Kano. Within it, however, there is a hierarchy, with younger students or junior employees taking on a heavier load.
Community activity is seen as bonding and character building, says Chance. “As you step into the 20th century, people have forged a connection that this is something you have to do to be a good member of society.”
Kano and Chance both note the gender inequalities in the preparations for the New Year, especially during Oosouji, which comes with strongly codified expectations and a mental burden placed on women. “You start by creating a schedule,” says Chance, which involves dividing up the chores between days and household members to clean areas that usually don’t get treated, like kitchen fans.
“As a practice expected of women, it dates from the beginning of the modern period, the 17th century,” Chance explains. “Oosouji’s outfit consists of rubber gloves and aprons. As part of her research, she tracks “how and what types of aprons are used to indicate how women are supposed to behave.”
“Men are supposed to help too, but there is a gender dimension to the cleaning itself,” Kano says, noting that men are generally responsible for tasks seen as heavy work, or those requiring a ladder. Putting on New Year’s decorations after Oosouji is usually a male domain, “maybe because it’s about tools,” Kano explains. “If you have adult men in the family who work outside the home,” it’s understood to be after-hours when they can help out, she says, “although it’s not. always the case “.
“Fewer and fewer people are cleaning up every year,” says Chance, as women enter the workforce and households move from a larger group of extended parents with many helping hands to smaller nuclear families.
Japanese newspapers report that women want to streamline household chores, Kano says, which “in Japan tends to take up unnecessary time.” There are countless YouTube channels devoted to morning cleaning rituals, a daily endeavor. “There’s a discussion about whether it’s really necessary, this kind of labor-intensive housework that relies on having a woman at home,” she says. “In single parent families, or when women work long hours outside the home, this is just not possible.
It remains to be seen how the pandemic will affect Oosouji. Care duties have increased during this time as women are expected to work and care for children at home, so time may be more limited, Kano says. On the flip side, people spent more time at home in 2020. COVID-19 has limited movement and socialization and increased anxieties about disease and infection. “There has been so much pressure to clean and disinfect because of the pandemic,” Chance says.