I once surprised a Japanese coworker by Purell-ing my hands after work and before dinner. She expressed to me that such fastidiousness was unnecessary because Japan is clean. Yes, apparently so clean that bacteria die on contact with its pristine wabi-sabi surfaces. You might now be expecting me to simply contradict this, and I will, to an extent. I also want to explore the process by which various behaviors have become so associated with cleanliness in the cultural vocabulary that they sometimes serve to conceal any objective cleanliness.
By “objective cleanliness” I don’t mean a complete lack of dirt and germs. Cleanliness is a bit like health or morality; it’s tricky to define what “perfectly clean” is but we can usually agree which of two bedrooms in very different states of disorder is cleaner. Even with a commonsense meaning of “clean”, that is free from visible dirt and unreasonable amounts of harmful microbes, it is hard to make a clear judgment on Japan as a “clean” country. Some parts are unexpectedly clean and others are not, and the people here claim a variety of observable behaviors as proof that Japan is clean that don’t seem valid.
There is a concept from philosophy that captures this effect, which is a simulation. I believe cleanliness in Japan varies from stage one:
The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a “reflection of a profound reality” (pg 6), this is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called “the sacramental order”.
which to me sounds like the most faithful correspondence our brains can ever have to reality; to stage three:
The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the sign pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original.
One example of a 3rd-stage simulacrum is the presence of handkerchiefs in the pockets of elementary schoolers. Students undergo spot checks in which teachers look for signs of basic hygiene, including clipped nails and lack of headlice. Teachers also make sure students are carrying their handkerchiefs, which they are supposed to use in place of towels in the bathroom and as tissues (although now most kids carry tissues as well). Now, the whole world is just now waking up to the fact that air dryers spread germs far more than paper towels, and one has to go several more hygienic consciousness-raisings back in time to come to an era when carrying a handkerchief was a sign of personal cleanliness. Not to mention that people don’t believe in blocking mucus anyway, tending to just aim their sneezes away from people as if germs traveled in a straight line until they hit something and ceased to exist like hitscan weapons from Quake. At present handkerchiefs are simulacra of cleanliness, since the objective reasons for their existence have long since disappeared.
A lot of behaviors follow this sort of path – elementary schoolers are supposed to have bleached white shoes for similar reasons. Junior high and high schoolers are supposed to have straight black hair, even if it doesn’t grow out that way. Toilets have an additional spout up top that allows you to wash your hands with the water that will be the next person’s flush, and is a great idea if you’ve never heard of soap. You aren’t supposed to hold the door open with your feet (feet are always, always the dirtiest thing on you), even if you just got done birthing a calf.
Of course rules always have a “get out of jail free” card in Japan in that they may survive simply for their own sake, in that your ability to follow rules in taken to show your character and gumption. Adding to the lifespan of a defunct rule is its continued function as a litmus test of obeisance. For these kinds of rules, function is almost a disadvantage since if someone obeys a sensible rule they may be doing it for their own independently thinking reasons, which wouldn’t show the same character.
Doing a job dutifully and competently is a similar test of character in Japan, and this is the reason convenience store bathrooms are so often spotlessly clean. The same goes for most private spaces and businesses. The space inside and around most restaurants is almost always free from random drops of water, wads of gum, receipts, plastic bags, and other eyesores. Private homes often are as well, which is even more impressive when you consider that most families don’t hire housekeepers. When a space is the responsibility of different groups of people or nobody at all, however, it can be pure chaos.
Cityscapes in Japan are such colorful jumbles they’re almost beautiful, but in the countryside the lack of coordination among clean fiefdoms is much less charming. The façade of any given café is still likely to be well-maintained, but that café might be next to a permanently illuminated 7-11, which is next to a new house, which is next to an abandoned house, which is next to a love hotel with a neon pink sign, which is next to a junior high school, which is (of course) next to a cram school. Things get chaotic pretty quickly as you zoom out from any particular clean surface.
People don’t tend to consider this, or the public dumps that are the beaches and forests, to be marks against Japan’s cleanliness. After all, the visible tokens of cleanliness like public gargling are usually present, and a lot of things that are considered vulgar or disgusting elsewhere like public urination are simply not noticed. So the image of Japan as a “clean” country is maintained, or at least simulated to most people’s satisfaction.