Osouji: New Year's Big Cleaning

In America, we have Spring Cleaning, that magical time of year where we finally get up off of our lazy butts and clean everything we’d been meaning to for a long time. The techniques can vary, purging of goods is common, and in the end, we use it as a bit of a metaphor for a fresh start. Japan has that same ethos and tradition, but they tie it to the New Year’s holiday, and we decided it was time we got in on that and tidied up our lives with our own Osouji.

Osouji (大掃除): Historic, Cultural, and Religious Significance

Osouji (literally, big cleaning) started in the Heian Period (794-1184) as a means to clean the Imperial Castle from all the soot that accumulated from burning wood to heat everything. It was nice to have a sparkly-new castle for the new year and it acted as a sort of purification ritual. In the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) temples got in on the action, as did a select few commoners. From there, it caught on as a tradition for most everyone to engage in.

The stories about the significance of the cleaning began to form from these traditions as well. It is said that the Shinto deity, Toshigami, cannot visit your home and bestow his yearly gifts of blessings and fortunes unless certain criteria are met, one of which being a clean and purified home, thanks to your Osouji.

But did you know there are special types of cleaning people do for Osouji? Well, let’s take a brief tour of each, shall we?

Susuharai (すす払い): Dusting

I translated this, and it literally translates to “soot payment.” Given the historical origins, I can understand now why this is the term! You dust everything, and I mean everything! Get all the nooks and crannies you overlook during your normal cleaning adventures and you’ve done a fine susuharai!

Seiri (整理): Organization

This is literally “organize” in Japanese. This part of your Osouji Think your typical evaluation and discarding of unnecessary items. If you’re familiar with the Kon Mari method, this is the very embodiment of that process. And just like that, you have completed your Osouji!

But why stop at home? Many businesses require a day or two (or three) from their employees where they stop their normal duties and give the office and their workspaces a good cleaning! Japan is famous for having its children clean the schools, but if you thought you’d be getting out of it because you’re an adult, then you’d be mistaken! How intense or long the Osouji is depends on the employer. At my university, we are encouraged to tidy our desks but there’s no one handing out demerits if we fail to do so.

Our Osouji Journey: Before and After

Our apartment got cluttered. No matter how small or large your space, you will find ways to fill it up with about 10% useful and necessary things and 90% “Wait, where did this come from?”-style items. Decluttering is all the rage, I had time off of work, so why not? We wanted to get our clothes/closets in order, organize our important papers, and declutter the kitchen, living room, and office area. Embracing the Osouji ethos, we also cleaned our balcony.

We started first with a list that eventually jumped to 28 cleaning items we had to cover in the four-day period we had allotted to the new year cleaning frenzy. Critical items were circled in blue, and included cleaning the vents (bathroom, AC, shower, kitchen) and dusting from top to bottom. It’s always best to start high and work downward, so all the icky you clear from the top doesn’t fall on the clean floors, thus necessitating a second floor cleaning.

Halee managed the floors, rugs, and floorboards, while I did the kitchen, bathroom, windows, and balcony. The kitchen is never a big problem: Just spray some grease cutter, scrub thoroughly, and put all the pieces back where you found them. It reminds me when I worked at Epcot, where one of the restaurant’s closing cleaning tasks was the scrub the grease hoods. That was always my preferred closing duty, seeing as I could do it quickly and not have to wait on any other task to finish before I could finish my own.

The balcony proved most challenging: It was warm and sunny the day I cleaned it, so naturally, I was sweating up a storm, hauling buckets of hot, soapy water to clean out AC unit, wipe down our rails, and try to get all the natural debris resting on our balcony off of it. My biggest error, however, was cleaning the windows from the outside. Protip: Soap and water first to remove the dirt, then the window cleaner. The shame streaks are still present, but I will be soaping them up in the coming week to seek redemption for my shoddy job before.

We managed to knock out 24 of the 28 items, narrowly missing the total fridge clean-out and cleanup before the new year was upon us. That’s not too shabby: Our TV is super shiny, the carpets feel divine, we trashed a load of unnecessary paperwork we had accumulated, and our balcony looks better than 99% of the balconies in our building. It feels better doing it around this time. Is it stressful, nestled between Christmas and New Year? Absolutely, but nothing quite beats that feeling of waking up New Year’s day, walking out into your home, and seeing that everything is spic and span. You pour yourself a hot drink, open the curtains, and soak in the sunlight as you survey the fruits of your labor. It’s a great tradition and now that I’ve tried it, I look forward to continuing it going into 2021.

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