Notes from Japan

A Clean Start

By Suzanne Kamata

Courtesy: Creative Commons

On the last day of the year, the line at the carwash snakes all the way into the street. My family and I wait patiently in our mini-van, preparing to hose and hoover, and to slather wax onto metal. Our bodies are tired and slightly grimy. For the past two weeks, we’ve been consumed by O-soji, the traditional thorough end-of-the-year cleaning. Every window in our house has been washed. Old newspapers have been bound and toted off to the recycling center. Our floors are as shiny as mirrors.

O-soji, or “Big Cleaning”, can be quite a task for my organisationally-challenged family. As an American, I come from a country where a leading magazine encourages women to aspire to “good enough housekeeping.” Better to become a lawyer or a doctor than spend all my spare time chasing dust bunnies, I learned.

Here in Japan, however, where wiping the floor is part of a kid’s education, cleaning is serious business. And Japanese women seem to spend far more time pushing a vacuum around than their counterparts across the sea. The mother of one of my daughter’s kindergarten classmates told me that she vacuums every day! This, in a country where one has to take off one’s shoes before stepping into a house. Another mother confessed that “tidy up” were among the very first words that her son learned. On a visit to our house, my own mother-in-law once took it upon herself to line up all of the socks in my children’s sock drawer.

However, if the tendency to tidiness is hereditary, my husband apparently missed out. He often leaves a trail of dirty, balled up socks, plastic snack wrappers and empty beer cans, and the car that we are about to wash is cluttered with trash. And although my daughter is often praised by teachers at her school for her obsessive-compulsiveness – i.e., she can’t concentrate unless her pencil case is perfectly aligned with the edge of her desk and she dutifully lines up hers and others’ shoes at the entrance of her classroom – at home, she lapses into sloppiness. And my son? The floor of his room is usually layered with cast-off clothes, comic books, and school papers.

But on the last day of the year, at least, our house is as neat as the proverbial pin.

The car ahead of us finishes, and we pull up in front of the hose. The four of us clear out the empty drink containers, vacuum up crumbs and dirt, and scrub the outside of the car. When we are finished, we go home and collapse on the sofa. We will eat noodles at midnight, and then wake feeling fresh and pure, ready for the first sunrise and the first dreams of the new year.

New Year End Noodles. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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