Most foreign tourists say that Japanese cities are very clean and are even surprised to see how the streets of a city as big as Tokyo are pristine. You only need to take a walk through one of the streets of Ginza or enter its subway or train stations to be aware that cleaning in Japan is not just a matter of organization.
Cleanliness is part of both our education and our culture. Since we are children, we are taught to maintain order in our home, to exhaustively recycle the waste we produce and to clean what we get dirty.
This also carries over to our school stage. Cleaning our classrooms, hallways and bathrooms (in our school after all) is one more task of our time at school. For this reason there are many citizens (children, adults and the elderly) who volunteer to clean the different parts of the city. Here it is not common to find wastebaskets on every corner or to see cleaning groups taking over the city. We are the citizens themselves who take care of recycling our waste at home and those who clean the streets of our work areas and our homes.
On the other hand, the use of hand sanitizers -which are available to visitors in shops, monuments and places of interest- and masks is common in our country. Generally, we do not even hand the money to other people but we have small trays in which to leave it to avoid the transmission of germs.
Although most Westerners tend to think that we wear masks because of pollution or allergies, the reality is that we wear them when we have any symptoms of illness due to social conscience. We understand that the use of a mask can prevent the contagion of many people and the economic loss that this entails.
This is the reason why the measures that are considered exceptional in other countries and that are put into practice in times of pandemic, in Japan are not a novelty.
Although, as I have said, citizenship education is largely one of the reasons that make Tokyo and Japanese cities in general one of the cleanest cities in the world, there is also a cultural background to this routine. The influence of sainthood and Zen Buddhism in our culture has led us to understand the cleanliness of the environment as a necessary condition to preserve the health of the body and spirit.
Thus, cleaning is for the Japanese a routine and a ritual. For us it is important to keep clean from the imperial square (since we consider that the place where the emperor lives must be pristine) to a small corner of our house. The battle against kegare (Shinto concept that means impurity or dirt) is still present in our way of understanding the world: cleanliness is so important because a single individual can affect society as a whole.
In these times of a global pandemic, it is easy to find photos of cleaning groups disinfecting cities. Also in Tokyo. However, this photo taken two days ago at Shinagawa station of two people cleaning the escalator handrails shows what is an everyday thing for us.
Although the government of Japan has finally decreed the state of health alert in the regions most affected by the coronavirus (Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, etc.), it is thanks to this idea of cleaning as a routine and ritual and to the work that we carry out each day the Japanese that the number of infected people (despite continuing to rise) and deaths is much lower than in other countries in the world.
I took the photos last week in the Marunouchi, Hibiya and Omotesando area and as you can see, no one walks the streets anymore.