While people in the western world perform a ‘spring cleaning’ as the months get warmer, Japan has an age-old tradition of deep cleaning their work and home space before the new year arrives.
This big cleanup, called Osouji in Japan, takes place up to a week before the new year and allows people to start the new year with a fresh and uncluttered mind and space. Although this is a Japanese tradition, there’s no reason why you can’t adopt this useful habit in your own life.
Let’s take a look at the ins and outs of Osouji.
What is Osouji?
In Japanese, ‘osouji’ literally means ‘big cleaning.’ The process involves filtering through possessions and throwing out unwanted items, tidying up, hoovering, dusting, and sanitizing each room.
Every space is cleaned from top to bottom, whether it’s a kitchen in a family home, an office block, a school, or even a temple or shrine. Walls, floors, ceilings, and furniture within the space are dusted, scrubbed, and sanitized.
Not only does this provide a clean slate to kickstart the new year, but the Japanese also use this ritual for spiritual benefits. The cleaning process is designed to rid the space of the impurities of the year just passed.
Toshigami is the Shinto god of the New Year, known to visit each house every new year and bring luck and fortune to the home for the upcoming year.
Osouji is just one ritual used in preparation for Toshigami’s visit. Others include creating decorations called kagami mochi and preparing a special dish called osechi.
History of Osouji
The practice of osouji began during the Japanese Edo period, which spanned between 1603 and 1867. The hearth at the center of the standard Japanese home would produce large amounts of soot, dirtying the floor and coating the furniture.
This process was called susuharai, literally meaning “removing the soot.” Because of this, dusting became one of the essential parts of the osouji process and remains just as significant today.
The cleaning ritual was instigated at the famous Edo castle at the end of every year in December. Ordinary people began mirroring that ritual and cleaning their own homes around the same time.
Although the principal purpose of osouji is to prepare for and welcome the new year deities, it is also a time for families to come together and participate in this process as a united group.
When to Start Osouji
The process of osouji originally started in the second week of December, which correlated with the cleaning of Edo Castle. This was done on 13th December, formerly the last day of the year.
Now, however, Japanese citizens begin osouji later in the month. Depending on the size of the space and how many people are helping, the process may take a few days, but many families cleaning their homes practice osouji on the last day of the month.
There is no time considered ‘too early’ to begin osouji, as the Japanese take this ritual very seriously, and any dirt left over is seen as an unclean start to the new year. It is a thorough process; many people take days to complete osouji in their spaces.
The key to osouji is remembering that it isn’t just a quick sweep or dust. It is a thorough cleaning process of everything you own. Everything is included: walls, floors, ceilings, sofas, ventilation fans, sinks, fridges, shelf tops, lamps, and windowsills!
Some stages should be used to ensure that every part of the house is cleaned, nothing gets forgotten, and the process is as thorough as possible.
Here are some of the stages that should be considered.
Susuharai – Dusting
Dusting every corner of your space is one of the most critical stages in the osouji process. As already mentioned, this used to be the primary job, thanks to all the soot from the fire stoves kept inside Japanese homes.
There’s no skimping out of susuharai! Everything should be covered, even the places that can’t be seen regularly. Window sills, vents, shelves, and fans are all included.
Seiri – Organization
Often one of the first jobs completed is decluttering and reorganizing possessions. Whether this means filtering through your wardrobe, reorganizing shelves, or moving the odd piece of furniture around, seiri is an integral part of osouji.
Any items that are no longer used will be thrown away or donated. Whatever you keep will be organized neatly and easily accessible!
New Years Decorations
After the year-end cleaning process, osouji dictates that you prepare decorations and food for the expected godly visitors.
Several decorations are frequently used in Japanese homes to welcome the new year spiritually.
- Kadomatsu are made from bamboo and pine leaves and symbolize longevity and vitality.
- Kagamimochi are edible decorations made from rice cakes called mochi and often have a tangerine on top.
- Shimekazari is a new year’s wreath made from rope, paper, and tangerines. These are placed on doors to welcome the kami gods, repel evil spirits and embrace good fortune.
After your house is fully prepared, one of the first things that Japanese citizens do is eat soba noodles. Traditionally, they eat Toshikoshi soba, prepared with soba noodles made from buckwheat.
This dish symbolizes longevity and ‘letting go.’ Soba restaurants around Japan will be filled around New Year’s Eve!
There are so many different parts of osouji and things to get right. It’s an essential Japanese ritual, but it can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re not a frequent mid-year cleaner. So, to complete osouji successfully, a few things must bear in mind.
Japanese often use the local 100-Yen Shop to acquire what they need to begin osouji. These are the Japanese equivalents of the American dollar stores and will sell pretty much anything and everything.
They’re the perfect place to visit to get all the cleaning equipment you’ll need for osouji, and the products are affordable too.
Any convenience store may also be a good port of call if you want branded products or particular air fresheners.
Give Yourself Time
Although completing osouji on 31st December is an excellent way to round off the year, the process may be more time-consuming than you think, and one day may not cut it.
Cleaning the ins and outs of every room and space you own or use is tiresome and lengthy, especially because some involve decluttering.
This means extra work for trash collectors, as every home throws away more refuse than usual. Refuse disposal workers usually have some of the New Year periods off.
Starting osouji in the week leading up to the new year is the best option; it gives you plenty of time to complete all stages of the process and means you can do a thorough job without rushing.
Getting ahead of the game is a good idea when tackling any activity. It’s especially true of osouji. Decluttering can take a while, especially if you do it correctly and thoroughly, so starting early is essential.
Also, starting early in the morning can be helpful – getting the more challenging, manual jobs out the way can ease the process and means you can tackle the lighter jobs in the afternoon or evening.
Take Breaks Frequently
Cleaning and tidying can be hard work physically. It’s tiring and exhausting if you have underlying injuries or are elderly. So, taking frequent breaks, especially from more demanding jobs like scrubbing, vacuuming, or dusting, is essential.
Given the thorough osouji process, it can be exhausting even if you’re fit as a fiddle. People living alone will have an even more challenging job, and carrying out osouji solo can be very trying.
It can be daunting to view it as one large project, particularly because the place should be immaculate after completion. So, dividing it into stages can be helpful.
Start by decluttering and dusting, then move on to hoovering and getting rid of the primary sources of dirt before starting the small, detailed work. In between each of these stages, you should take breaks to unwind and relax.
Following the long-winded preparation to welcome the new year, the Japanese also have a few other rituals that they do either on New Year’s Eve or just after.
Most Japanese preparations for the new year are aimed at spiritual purification, and these are no different.
Joya No Kane
Joya No Kane is the traditional bell-ringing ceremony that occurs nationwide every New Year’s Eve. The bells in temples slowly ring 108 times, the last of which should strike at midnight.
The 108 rings are supposed to symbolize the 108 worldly desires. A temple shrine or priest typically carries out this process, but many temples offer visitors the opportunity to join in the tradition.
This refers to the first visit to a temple or shrine of the year. Japanese citizens usually visit between the 1st and 3rd of January and pray for good fortune.
Large crowds and long queues are expected in most temples and shrines across Japan during this period, especially those based in and around major cities like Tokyo or Kyoto.
Final Thoughts about Osouji in Japanese Culture
The osouji process is a great idea that doesn’t just have to stay in Japan! Although you may not complete the cleaning or decorating processes with a spiritual intention, there’s no doubt that a good deep clean is a great way to make a fresh start to the year for anyone!