An American learns Japanese cleanliness

An American learns Japanese cleanliness

The pressure to be super-clean is on you from the very start of the day in Japan. You fling open your bathroom door first thing in the morning, and it triggers your high-tech toilet’s auto-cleaning function.

It’s side-lights flip on and the unit makes a sizzling, internal spraying sound as it automatically prepares the bowl for your arrival:

The morning toilet greeting sets the tone for the rest of your day.

Next up, you hurry to separate your burnable from your non-burnable garbage, as you have to somehow fit all your burnables on this day into one tiny garbage can. This takes all your time, and you wave good-bye in a rush to your four-year-old-son sitting down to his cereal as you head out the door. He waves back, flinging corn flakes all over.

Ode to Mom

You want to stay and clean it up, but there’s no time for that, much less any cereal. You have to catch your train to work, and leave a mess for your wife to clean up at the very start of her own day.

You arrive at your office and do a double-take at the outside entrance. Your boss, a lofty vice president, is sweeping the area with a broom, a dust collector, white work gloves, the whole bit. You then remember that in egalitarian Japan, everyone shares cleaning duties on a rotating basis.

You go into the men’s room after you arrive in the office, and see three middle-aged Japanese men standing in front of the sinks with their heads tilted towards the ceiling in exactly the same manner, gargling water grotesquely and then spitting it out. Standard Tokyo office hygiene after an hour spent in a jam-packed, germ-infested train car.

After that, you finally get to your desk, hungry and already tired of all this cleanliness. You take another body-blow when the first thing that greets you is a little yellow warning card put on your desk by HR. Its nagging instructions say you must clean off your desk COMPLETELY before leaving every night.

Immaculate Desk Requirement

Yellow card translated: “make the desktop refreshingly clean, OK?

This nearly sets you off, but you decide you better just eat something and settle down. But you have no privacy at your desk – there are no cubicles in your typical Japanese office, just row-upon-row of desks thrown on top of each other.

You’re like baseball players sitting side-by-side in a dugout. You chuckle when you realize that if you spun around 360 degrees while sitting in your chair with your arms spread horizontally, you’d clip the two people sitting next to you and barely miss the one in front.

This communal atmosphere makes eating at your desk a no-no.

Despite this you then quietly dig out the little bag of Doritos from your drawer, give a peek left and right to make sure the coast is clear, and wolf the whole bag in three handfuls. Your satisfied, but now have orange Dorito-fingers and are in the middle of looking for the little moist toilettes you were sure you had in your drawer – the damn things are everywhere in Japan and now, after Doritos of course, you can’t find one!

Suddenly, from your left, your geeeted in formal Japanese with, “Excuse me! Good morning…”.

You jump up, and your eyes widen as you see it’s the company CEO, a very formal Japanese executive, making an unannounced visit to your desk. Everyone in the office stops to watch the exchange, as he still hasn’t met you yet, the only foreigner in his company.

You need to make a good impression, so you stiffen your posture and clasp your Dorito hands behind your back in a nice, humble-looking Japanese pose.

He then, as you hoped he would not, puts his hand out for a Western-style handshake, and after doing a panicky hand wipe on your back pant leg, you shake it. As he walks away you assume that he now thinks all Americans must work with dirty Dorito hands at their desk in the morning.

During the most frantic part of your day – getting your next business trip approved by your boss – its announced everyone must put on a surgical mask as one of your colleagues went home with the flu that day. Office rules in Japan dictate you act like you’ve entered an Ebola hot zone in these situations in an anal attempt to prevent spreading the flu germs.

Masked Salaryman

Not being able to see your boss’ lips move as he barks at you about your trip schedule throws your Japanese comprehension off. In frustration, he comes almost nose-to-nose to you with his mask on and shouts “hee ga chigau!” (“the day you selected is wrong!”). But what you think you hear is “hiyake daro” (“your face is sunburned and red!”).

You fumble with the exchange for a few minutes and finally fall into a funk, all caused by this fanatical cleanliness.

The final boot to your head comes as you’re about to leave the office and all this nitpicking behind for the day. As a tedious follow-up to your morning desk yellow card, an HR lackey arrives to give you the following guide to properly cleaning your desk.

Immaculate Japanese Desk

“O” is for yes do it this way, “X” is for unacceptable

And then HE STAYS to watch you clean it.



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