External Affairs

Zen and the Art of Sanitation, or the Right Way to Keep a Country Clean

In Japan, cleaning is a public service to be performed by everyone, not relegated to one marginalised section of the society.

It is do-it-yourself with a difference, involving no greater technology than brush, broom and cloth. On every normal school day, after a thorough post-lunch brushing of teeth, Japanese school children get down to a more public service for the next 15 minutes: cleaning the school. A starker difference with India’s paranoid aversions to cleaning and cleaners, its high tolerance for dirt, especially when ‘not in my own backyard’, and its determined condemnation of whole sections of society to ‘specialise’ in such work cannot be found.     

The largest sanitary-product manufacturer in Japan, Toto, has redefined the experience of sanitation from below. This is not just by renaming the toilet as ‘washlet’. Designed in loving detail, the washlet permits permutations and variations of temperature, (beginning with the seat), water force, sound (to mask less pleasant answers to the calls of nature) and of course smell. This total sensory care is not just the logical climax of Japanese techno-fetishism’s relentless search for new fields of conquest. It is equally a result of a cultural obsession which has a long pre-history and continues to have a creative presence in many aspects of everyday life and learning. 

Where else, in any part of the world, might one encounter a medieval monks’ toilet or tosu being designated as ‘Important Cultural Property’? Did monks in other parts of the world even enjoy anything more than the great outdoors? Hay on the landing was the preferred choice of many European monarchs, as a visit to Versailles quickly reveals; at best there was the portable chamber pot to be carried off and cleaned by the minions. In our subcontinent, the much-marvelled sanitation systems of the Indus civilisation have left not a trace on subsequent centuries, and certainly not in our modern times, when the brutal practice of manual scavenging is continued as a monumental vestige – lest we forget – of power that some castes enjoy over others

The tosu at Tofukuji Zen Temple Complex, dating from the 14th century. Credit: Janaki Lenin

The tosu at Tofukuji Zen Temple Complex, dating from the 14th century. Credit: Janaki Nair

Japan has arrived at a different way of monumentalising its cultural achievements. A long, low building on the site of the famous 13th-century temple complex of Tofukuji in Kyoto boasts of the oldest series of Zen toilets in Japan and is today designated an Important Cultural Property. Through the wooden slats, one sees no more than a series of evenly-spaced receptacles in the ground, for a collective meditative experience no doubt, but also for draining into a system that collected manure for sale as fertiliser. The series of stoves on the other side were presumably for hot water or steam to complete the ablutions. Although Japan has its share of discriminatory practices, especially vis-à-vis the leather processing Burakumin community, one doubts that the toilets were maintained by a specially designated and reviled social group.

More instructive for our current obsession with toilet construction and use, if only to fulfil the dreams of our leaders for an open-defecation-free India, is the crucial question of how these facilities will be maintained. Even 300 years of civic existence has not induced the otherwise urbane resident of Kolkata to consider cleaning their own toilets. The designation of toilet cleaning to a specific caste has been elevated to a fine art, as in most other parts of India.

In Japan, they do more than dwell on their glorious past, and certainly, do not rely on a specific group of people to clear up their filth. They spend a good deal of time and effort on training the young to take care of their surroundings, and especially their toilets. Nothing is left to the vagaries of youth or the mood of the teacher. Cleaning is a part of the primary school curriculum. At Kita-Yamada Elementary School in Osaka, for instance, children from as young an age as six years spend 15 minutes cleaning classrooms, corridors and yes, toilets, with brushes, pails, cloths and brooms (which are then in turn cleaned and put away). No advanced technology or chemical is used here. In the corridors, a Grade VI student is paired with a six-year-old, each doing their systematic part. Students go down on their hands and knees to erase the marks of the morning’s calligraphy class. A brush and sponge are used on already-fairly-clean toilets to produce sparkling ones. By a system of rotating the chores, students are well trained in outdoor and indoor cleaning.

Nor is the supervision of the teachers left to chance. Teachers themselves (as well as students) are trained by cleaning professionals (DASKIN is among the most well-known companies) and are provided with instructional sheets with exact directions on how to wield the mop or broom. There is neither shame nor opprobrium attached to these activities.

Instruction sheet for teacher supervisors. Credit: Janaki Nair

Instruction sheet for teacher supervisors. Credit: Misako Kanno

No municipal school employs cleaning staff; professionals may come in twice a year, as do parents when strong chemicals are to be used. But otherwise, the students learn an enduring lesson, collectively and willingly participating in cleaning their spaces and wielding brush and broom, washcloth and rubber, with impressively meticulous care.

The lessons in cleaning no doubt account for overall high quality of public toilet usage and maintenance in Japan. Though workplaces may employ professionals, the token collective cleaning, of the outdoors during fall, for instance, are gentle reminders of the lessons well learned in childhood. Faculty, staff and students at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, for instance, participate in the ritual of cleaning a few times a year. Although this is not a daily affair, there is nothing like wrestling with a stubborn clump of grass to appreciate the work done daily by the professionals. It promotes, to boot, a collective responsibility for the surroundings. 

What drives this sense of collective responsibility? How deeply held is the respect for the other’s peace and cleanliness? Consider that even a raucous beer festival with bands and top-notch sound systems at Ibaraki, Osaka came to an end exactly at 8 pm out of consideration for the neighbourhood. One could argue that this takes Foucauldian disciplining to Olympian heights: in India, such a wonderful opportunity to show others “do you know who I am?” would not be missed at all. But even more astounding than the consideration about noise in the residential neighbourhood was the swift and thorough cleaning of the ground done by volunteers, leaving the place in its original shape.

It is time indeed to stop blaming our colonial masters for the ills that they have bequeathed us; certainly, the finger-wagging advertisements of Swachh Bharat are fatally flawed and will do little to end our collective horror of manual labour, particularly work that involves dealing with bathrooms and toilets. The real revolution will happen when we start engaging the very young, of all backgrounds, castes and genders, in the daily repetitive task of cleaning. M.K. Gandhi has been turned into a social worker with a broom by our current government, but we would do better to listen to why he paid so much attention to the iterative labour of toilet cleaning in a country that is too accustomed to leaving that irksome task to others.

Janaki Nair teaches history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

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