Cleaning: A Japanese Habit and Ritual
Souji (掃除, also Soji, Sōji) literally means “cleaning”. Everybody, who dives a little bit into the Japanese culture, realizes that cleaning, cleanness, and tidiness are of utmost importance. This also applies to Karate and Budo. Cleaning shall teach virtues like respect, humbleness, mindfulness, diligence, and a sense to be part of a collective. In addition, the practice of cleaning shall also lead to spiritual purity and enlightenment. How this works and why you should clean your Dojo regulary explains Dr. Christian Tribowski.
Souji, cleaning, is serious business in Japan. For instance, Japanese families organize a O-souji (大掃除), a big cleaning before the end of the year in order to welcome the New Year God, Toshigami-sama, in a nice and tidy house.
No wonder that the global queen of cleaning is from Japan. Marie Kondo aka KonMari is a 35 year old organizing consultant from Tokyo who has turned tidying into a million dollar business. According to Celebrity Net Worth her TV shows and books about how to get rid of clutter and how to make your apartment tidy and keep it this way have gained her $8 million so far.
But even at most unexpected places the Japanese show an incredible desire and urge to clean. For instance, after sports events. While this has long been reported to be the case in Japanese baseball stadiums, where fans and even the teams go through the rows and clean behind them after the game. Japanese football fans have brought this habit to a global stage. They also cleaned up their block in the stadium at the last world championships in Russia in 2018. Footage of cleaning Japanese fans first appeared on social media after the game against Colombia and the world was weirded out.
But the biggest surprise happened when the Japanese lost 3-2 against Belgium and had to leave the tournament. Right after the game and before they left the stadium, the Japanese national football team cleaned their locker room. According to The Independent, it was spotless and contained a thank you note.
Souji in the Dojo
The Dojo is also a place of constant Souji in Japan. After or before the training, students come together and clean the floor and also other parts of the Dojo. The traditional approach of Souji works the following way:
- Little children, adults, and elderly all do the cleaning together.
- The students line up with dry mops in their hands and go on the floor.
- Then, they push the mop firmly with their hands on the ground and shove it through the Dojo.
- Once they have reached the opposite side of the Dojo, they turn around and shove it again to the other side.
- The floor has, thus, been mopped two times.
Modern Souji can also be done with a mop on a stick and in fun ways. While the most cultures perceive cleaning as cumbersome, Japanese Dojos show us how entertaining it can be. In the video below the Dojo turns Souji into a small competition.
Shinto and Zen: The Roots of Souji
But what are the roots of Souji? One hypothesis says: The school system in Japan teaches students right from the start of their education to take care of their classrooms and the school in general. Every student must take part in collective cleaning sessions. Therefore, cleaning is taught in schools as a important virtue.
While this hypothesis is not wrong empirically, it is only a sufficient explanation. Because cleaning has been of paramount importance for the Japanese for several hundred years and even before the school system was established. For instance, when the first European Jesuit missionaries came to Japan in the 16th century they were not used to bath regularly. The Japanese, on the other hand, washed themselves everyday. Thus, a much deep and older factor must lead to the Japanese desire and urge for Souji.
Shinto and Purification
One answer can be found in the ritual practices of the Shinto religion in Japan. Shinto is a natural and animistic religion where the practitioners believe in so called Kami. These are gods and spirits that inhabit all material things. Shinto is unique to Japan and understands human beings as pure and clean.
However, through wrong behavior, the violation of rules and taboos, amoral natural forces, contact with death or childbirth as well as diseases, humans could become polluted, impure, and guilty. These process are called Tsumi (罪, “transgression, offense, vice, crime, “sin”, penalty, guilt) and Kegare (汚れ, “uncleanness”).
To become pure again the worshiper must go trough so called Harai (祓い): rituals of purification. Most of these rituals involve symbolic washing of the hands and mouth (Temizu, 手水). Some also require the Shinto practitioner to take a bath in a in a stream, a river, a lake or the ocean in a purification ceremony (禊 Misogi).
Shinto put, therefore, a tremendous weight on cleanness and purity. It also associates uncleanness and impurity with guilt, sin etc. That is why Japanese tend to avoid unclean situations where ever possible. As a consequence the Shinto and its notion of purity have a strong influence on Souji.
Zen and Cultivation
Another source responsible for the Japanese urge for cleaning lies in Zen Buddhism. Originally from China Zen flourished in Japan and has been one of the central cultural paradigms of the country. Especially the arts, craftsmanship, and the aesthetic of Japan have been shaped by Zen. But also Budo was highly influenced by the religion.
For instance, Yagyu Munenori (柳生 宗矩, 1571 – 1646), one of the formative figures of Kenjutsu (swordsmanship), stood in a close correspondence with Takuan Sōhō (沢庵 宗彭, 1573 – 1645) a central figure of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism and advisor to the Shogun. The most prominent result of the intellectual exchange between the swordsman and the monk has been the book The Unfettered Mind (不動智神妙録, fudōchi shinmyōroku) written by Takuan for Yagyu Munenori. In his book he applies Zen concepts and terminology to analyse Budo. Since then, a close relationship between the religion and the fighting arts has grown closer and closer.
But what does Zen teach about Souji? One of the most practical and contemporary accounts of this relation is the small book A Monk´s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukai Matsumoto first published in 2011. In his book he gives a very concise explanation about the relationship of Zen and Souji.
Cleaning isn´t considered burdensome, or something you don´t really want to do and wish to get over with as soon as possible. They say that one of Buddha´s disciples achieved enlightenment doing nothing but sweeping while chanting, “Clean of dust. Remove grime.” Cleaning is carried out not because there is dirt, but because it´s an ascetic practice to cultivate the mind.”Shoukai Matsumoto, A Monk´s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, 2018, p. 3
Shoukai Matsumoto shows: cleaning is a sacred act of self-cultivation in Zen. This becomes clear when he writes: “The people and things in your life are what makes you who you are … People who don´t respect objects don´t respect people.” (p. 4) The treatment of the outer world, therefore, directly influences yourself and your soul. To clean your surroundings means to clean your inner self and to cultivate yourself.
Shinto and Zen
If both approaches of Souji – Shinto and Zen – become combined they offer a plausible explanation why Japanese take cleaning so seriously. Because the practice of cleaning means, on the one hand, to get rid of trouble and bad karma (Tsumi and Kegare) through purifcation. On the other hand, it also promises self-cultivation and enlightenment. That means that everybody who cleans avoids bad and receives good within the same action at the same time – a strong tandem. The Zen notion of the interconnection between the world of the objects and the world of the subjects (spirits) links this approach to tangible places like shrines, temples, a house, a company, and also Dojos.
Why is Souji good for your Dojo and your Karate?
The Dojo is the place for the practice of the Do, the Karate way. Cleaning in the ritual Shinto and Zen sense comprises features that foster the ethical and spiritual development of Karatekas. Because rituals create and change perception, when they are constantly practiced. So, what can Souji teach us?
- Respect: To clean something, like Shoukai Matsumoto writes, means to learn to respect it. When you regularly clean the Dojo it will change its meaning to you. You start to take care of it. It turns from an anonymous and functional place like a public gym into a place you connect with. Your perception of its change and condition becomes sharper. And you learn to not take it for granted. From here Karatekas can develop a sense of respect for others. Because the cleanness of a Dojo depends on everybody. Only when you work as a team the Dojo stays clean. So, when everybody must clean on a regular basis a sense of respect for the efforts of others emerges.
- Purification: We are the world we live in. Therefore, we are also the Karateka of the Dojo we train in. A purified Dojo lays the foundation to become a purified Karateka. Dirt, shabby walls, filthy locker rooms etc. reflect on the soul. They increase the chance that somebody lets himself go mentally and spiritually. Thus, an unclean Dojo undermines its actual purpose: to serve as the place for the practice of Do.
- Humility: To understand the efforts of others like cleaning also means to understand how dependent we all are. Joint cleaning turns peasants and lords into equals. We cannot live without others and nobody is an island. Therefore, we have to be humble and take a step back from our claims and our sense of entitlement. Instead, we should just clean the floor.
- Evanescence: To clean means to connect and to deal with the evanescence of the world. After a hard Keiko, the floor is dirty. It is the natural process of deterioration and pollution. Souji requires to acknowledge this evanescence and to work against it. Instead of giving up against an unbeatable enemy, the evanescence, the cleaner chooses life and resistance in order to recreate the former pure status.
- Joint experience: Like in every joint ritual the aspect of a collective experience is important. To Souji together means to bond, to share, and to show solidarity. A Dojo is a place of people. While everybody must go the Karate Do by himself, we all need fellows, who accompany us, help us, criticize us, pick us up when we are down, on who we can rely on, who push us, give us feedback, and have a drink together with us every now and then. Celebrating together creates a strong foundation for a group. But to get on the knees together to take care of the Dojo and working for its purification is practiced Karate Do in a collective action. That will lead to a real bond and a Karate family within a Dojo.
Do you regularly clean your Dojo? If not, the Souji Do might we worth trying.