Shogatsu: Japan’s spring cleaning in December
Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 28, 2007
MANY PEOPLE IN WESTERN COUNTRIES would enthusiastically welcome the adoption of some Japanese customs, such as the practice of removing one’s shoes before entering a house. For example, I’ve heard more than one housewife in the United States express the wish that they could enforce the no-shoe rule in their own home.
One local tradition I am not enthused about, however, is the timing of the major housecleaning at the end of the year. I understand the principle behind it, but I’d prefer to go outside and wash the windows in April, when the weather is warmer, instead of the last week in December.
Nevertheless, Japanese throughout the archipelago have been busy this week making sure their homes and business offices are clean and fresh for the new year, inside and out. (At the coffee shop in a small museum I like to visit on Friday afternoons, one of the employees today was taking out and dusting off every CD in the rack, as well as the exterior and interior of the rack itself.)
It’s often observed that the Japanese devotion to cleanliness borders on the religious, and that devotion might be more literal than some suspect. For example, the miko, or Shinto shrine maidens (roughly equivalent to altar boys in a Catholic church), shown in the photo are removing the cobwebs at the Terukuni Shinto shrine in Kagoshima City during the annual susuharai. (That literally means cleaning away the soot, though the word harai also has religious overtones of purification).
This ceremony-cum-shrine cleaning combines the practical with the religious by dealing with the dust and dirt that has collected over the past year near the roof of the main hall, which at Terukuni is six meters high. The six miko are wielding four-meter-long bamboo brooms, the tool used at shrines for this particular chore. When they finish this job, they’ll get to work preparing the amulets, hamaya arrows, and other good luck charms that will be sold at the shrines during the New Year’s holiday.
And I’m not joking when I say it’s the spring cleaning in December. The New Year season in Japan is sometimes referred to as shinshun, or new spring, based on the tradition that considers the first, second, and third months of the year as spring.
It might not be the most pleasant of tasks to dress up in those outfits and clean the shrine exterior in December (even down south in Kagoshima, where it’s warmer), but they still have it easier than these folks. I’m glad I’m not part of that work crew!