With 2019 drawing to a close, it’s time for people nationwide to dig out their household cleaning products, grab a pair of rubber gloves and don a face mask before dusting, sweeping and scrubbing their living spaces from top to bottom to ensure they are spotless come New Year’s Day. 

Called ōsōji (big cleanup), the ritual is traditionally performed at the end of the year, offering households an opportunity to reset and begin the new year afresh. 

As almost everyone knows, however, this gargantuan task is far easier said than done. What items should people consider throwing away? Who’s brave/stupid enough to volunteer to tackle the kitchen? Is it ever possible to get oil stains out of a treasured pair of gray pants? 

Seeking the answer to these questions and more, we talk to three cleaning experts — Satoru Imamura, the head of a national cleaning association, “super homemaker” Mitsue Yamasaki and “laundry prince” Yuichi Nakamura — who share various tips on cleaning, as well as philosophies on life and the importance of creating a clean environment. 

Satoru Imamura 

Many people are likely to be familiar with Japanese words such as Bushido (literally, “the way of the warrior”) and jūdō (literally, “gentle way”). But what about sōjidō, or “the way of cleaning”? 

Satoru Imamura, head of the Nihon Soji Kyokai (Japan Cleaning Association), says people can use sōjidō in order to create a satisfactory home environment and instill positive habits. 

“People can only truly change through action,” Imamura says. “We believe the programming of a brain changes when someone takes positive action and moves their hands, mouth and feet. Sōjidō is a type of training that helps define you as a person.” 

The association currently has 10,000 members nationwide. It presents annual awards to individuals, companies and schools engaged in cleaning activities that contribute to society. In 2015, for example, Akita Prefectural Technical High School’s badminton club won an honorable mention award from the association for deciding to spend one morning a week cleaning around their school instead of practicing. 

As a result of their community work, the club was able to work more closely with local residents and focus on their training, ultimately winning that year’s prefectural tournament. Imamura says the goal of his association is to help people live in a clean environment that will lead to an organized mind. 

“Concentration is key to any success and people typically need to be in a settled environment so that they can focus completely on what they are working on without distraction,” Imamura says. “When people are in a clean environment, they are undeniably able to concentrate better and are therefore more likely to succeed.” 

In general, Imamura says, people should throw out things they used in the past and things they think they will use in the future. 

Four words that people use when talking about cleaning are: seiri (to organize, or discard items), seiton (to tidy, or arrange items for easy access), seisō (to clean, or physically dust, sweep and mop) and seiketsu (to maintain neatness and keep everything shiny and polished). 

Imamura admits that he himself was once not very tidy and used to be surrounded by all kinds of household materials, including 20,000 books. However, he has since changed his philosophy so drastically that he even threw out a fourth-place medal he won in 2012 for completing the 250 km Atacama Crossing marathon in Chile before returning home to Japan. He took a photograph of himself with the medal and then tossed it in the trash. 

Imamura recognizes that people typically have a hard time throwing items away because they are either valuable or have personal memories associated with them. The yardstick, he says, is to ensure that people find a use for the things they have difficulty parting with. 

“We believe most memorabilia is unnecessary but if someone has a few things that make them warm and happy — for example, personal items from a deceased parent — then it’s OK to keep them,” Imamura says. “Perhaps that person could even create a place in which to display the items. The point is that by seeing the item everyday and drawing positive energy from it, they are technically using it.” 

Ōsōji rituals are believed to have originated from the year-end tradition of susu-harai, which literally means “to dust the soot away.” In the Edo Period (1603-1868), susu-harai was observed on Dec. 13 and households would work together to clean the living quarters in order to welcome Toshigami, or deities of the new year. 

According to a survey taken by Duskin Co., however, the number of people who actually clean their households and workplaces at the end of the year is on the decrease. The survey results, which began in 2004, show that the number peaked in 2008 with 71.7 percent, dropping to 58 percent in 2014. Imamura acknowledges that it is probably better to save some cleaning chores until Golden Week, when the weather is milder. 

“It’s important, for example, to open windows when cleaning and it is too cold to do that in the winter,” Imamura says. “It is practical to save some cleaning until a different time. … That said, I think that many Japanese people want to clean the house and begin the new year afresh.” 

Imamura’s career has taken a few twists and turns. He first started out as a banker at the now-defunct Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan before leaving to found a cram school in 1997 for students wishing to pass entrance exams for junior high school or universities. His cram school also provided education to hikikomori, a term given to young people who have trouble adjusting to a regular school or job, and become socially reclusive. In the course of his interactions with such students, he realized that one thing united them all — their rooms were incredibly messy. 

“Their rooms were like a massive garbage pile,” Imamura says. “It is impossible to help people become positive thinkers in a disgusting environment like that. I realized then that who you are depends on the environment you live in, and so I decided to try to help people change their surrounding environment.” 

While running the cram school in Yokohama, which he sold in June, Imamura also began to receive requests from companies to hold corporate training courses on cleaning. He hasn’t looked back since. 

“We all value living in the moment,” Imamura says. “Most hikikomori students, adults who are distressed and athletes who are going through a slump have one thing in common — they are either regretting their past or worrying about their future. So I train people on how to let go of the past and the future in order to concentrate on the present. Put simply, the best way to start is by cleaning.” 

Satoru Imamura’s top cleaning tip: Imamura advises amateurs to change their way of thinking and start by cleaning every day for just 10 seconds. Cleaning can be overwhelming, Imamura says, but it’s more manageable when broken down into small parts. Thus, he says, start with one thing at a time, whether that simply be opening a window or washing a glass. “It’s important to clean for 10 seconds on a daily basis,” Imamura says. “And then keep doing it.” 

Mitsue Yamasaki 

A homemaker cooks, cleans and takes care of the household-related issues that are necessary to keep a family running. But unlike “ordinary” people with “real jobs,” she does not get paid. 

However, every year for the past 14 years, jobs search engine Salary.com, has been calculating how much an average homemaker’s annual salary would be, cross-referencing its salary database with survey results from homemakers on their domestic jobs. The average amount is pretty substantial: An average homemaker’s annual salary in 2008 was about ¥12 million, a figure that didn’t change significantly through 2014. 

When Mitsue Yamasaki, a member of Zenkoku Tomo no Kai (National Friendship Association), a volunteer organization to promote a healthy and stable home environment, referenced the 2008 number during a recent lecture on reorganizing the inside of a home, a look of surprise spread through the audience. 

“When I ask women to guess, they usually say between ¥2 million and ¥6 million,” Yamasaki said during her lecture. “This number shows just how important the work of the homemakers really is and I wanted to share that with everyone today.” 

The association was established in 1930 by women who were primarily readers of Fujin no Tomo, a lifestyle magazine founded by the country’s first female journalist, Motoko Hani. 

Hani wrote a series of books on her philosophies on life, from house cleaning and book-keeping to religious beliefs and education. Zenkoku Tomo no Kai currently has about 20,000 members and more than 180 branches at home and abroad. 

Yamasaki has been dubbed a super homemaker after NHK featured her alongside several friendship association members on a morning information program. Indeed, Yamasaki can transform any cluttered home into a tidy and easy-to-use living space — no matter how bad a state it is in to begin with. 

Women of various ages gathered in Tokyo’s Kichijoji neighborhood at the end of November to hear Yamasaki speak on various ways to organize households. Many of the participants must have been a bit surprised at the beginning of her talk, as the first half was almost like a lesson in social studies. Yamasaki discussed a wide range of topics, covering the women’s liberalization movement and the Nazis all the way up to the 2011 Tohoku disaster and the United Nation’s goal of having 50/50 male-female equality by 2030. 

“Our objective is female empowerment and, unfortunately, we cannot say it is an equal society for women yet,” Yamasaki says. “It is important to introduce the history of how women have been oppressed.” 

Yamasaki married at 22 while still in university, and had her daughter several years later. She was young, didn’t know how to cook, wash clothes, clean the house, or raise a child and began to suffer from neurosis. 

That was when she first came across the friendship association. There, she made friends, learned how to manage her house and her household income, and has now been an active member for 39 years. 

“I was like a dried up rice paddy absorbing water,” Yamasaki says. “I learned everything I know from the friendship association.” 

Yamasaki’s own home is a perfect example of an organized living space. Every set of items is divided into baskets or separated using recycled milk cartons. Her house is sparkling clean, warm and welcoming. In fact, Yamasaki sometimes holds open homes for Zenkoku Tomo no Kai members to show visitors that you don’t need a big house to have everything organized. 

During her lecture, Yamasaki also referred to the government’s 2008 new school guideline that officially included “cleaning” as a student activity. Historically in Japan, cleaning classrooms and toilets have been a part of education for a number of generations. She notes that it is important to have children engaged in house cleaning as well when they are still young. 

“Cleaning helps children learn that people need to look after themselves,” Yamasaki says. “Then, when it’s time to carry out ōsōji with everyone in the family at the end of the year, it is an opportunity to teach them to clean not only for yourself but for others as well. In this way, children get to learn about doing things for other people at a young age.” 

According to a survey compiled by Zenkoku Tomo no Kai, a homemaker spends an average of five hours a day doing housework, of which the majority is spent in the kitchen. 

Thus, Yamasaki and fellow super homemakers typically go around helping other members reorganize their kitchen. However, she stresses that they generally only work on the kitchen because they want to use this makeover as an opportunity for young women to think for themselves and remake the rest of the house. 

“Our goal is to make the world a better place by making our homes a better home,” Yamasaki says. “What we are doing is providing real-life examples.” 

Mitsue Yamasaki’s top cleaning tip: Yamasaki advises people to think carefully about the location each item is stored in. “Everything has its own place,” Yamasaki says. She suggests taking all items out of their storage spaces in the kitchen and then separating them into groups (for example, seasoning, noodles, pots, etc.). When deciding where to store them, ensure the products that are used the most frequently are stored in areas that are convenient for access. “Finding a place for everything is part of cleaning and once you are able to organize your house, you will want to keep it that way,” Yamasaki says. 

Yuichi Nakamura 

Yuichi Nakamura’s laundry studio is located in a 42-sq.-meter single-room apartment in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka neighborhood. The center of the room looks almost like a stage that consists of a large sink, three washing machines and one dryer. There, Nakamura stands and gives lessons on how to wash clothes. 

Three or four times a month, Nakamura hosts classes on washing clothes for a group of about three to 12 students. On a blackboard, he draws a picture that outlines how a stain is structured: The outer extremity is oil, the middle section is water and the color pigment makes up the innermost layer. After covering the basics, he moves on to practical matters, as the students take out pieces of clothing they brought along and, under Nakamura’s guidance, learn how to wash them. 

“I was surprised that many people seem to have problems with laundry but no one was around to give them advice,” Nakamura says. “I wanted to help these folk wash their clothes properly so they could do it themselves.” 

At his studio, he uses various detergent, powders, liquids, a bar of soap, powdered citric acid, and both acidic and chlorinated bleach. None of the cleaning products are special in their own right and all of them are available from local drugstores. 

Carefully, he explains how to use the different types of detergent for maximum effect. He notes, for example, that powdered detergent and bleach are stronger than liquid types, while soap bars are good for dingy clothes. Acid bleach, he says, does not turn colored clothing white and is quite useful in getting rid of stains. Chlorinated bleach, however, is so strong it often damages the material and, therefore, is seldom of use. 

“In some ways, ordinary household detergents are better than professional cleaning products because manufacturers make these products carefully so that your average person can wash their clothes successfully,” Nakamura says. 

Born into a three-generation family of dry cleaners who run a shop called Hosensha in the city of Ina, Nagano Prefecture, Nakamura has been around clean clothes for much of his life. As a child, his playroom was his family’s work space and he would frequently take afternoon naps next to the washing machines. As a student, his uniforms were always pressed. 

“It was natural for me to always have clean, pressed clothes and I didn’t even notice until a friend pointed it out,” Nakamura recalls. “I remember being fascinated by how my father could change wrinkled clothing into sharply ironed clothing. There was something very cool about his professional skills.” 

With his family business in mind, Nakamura decided to undergo training at a midsize laundry chain in Tokyo for three years. He spent the first six months on reception before moving on to setting up dress shirts in machines to be pressed, and then ironing sweaters, pants and jackets by hand. In the last six months or so of his apprenticeship, he was finally able to learn to master the washing part of the process. 

“You cannot clean everything with a machine,” Nakamura says. “For the best results — cleaning the stain without damaging the item of clothing — you need to use a human touch.” 

Back at home, however, business was not doing well. Although he returned, the company was in such bad financial state that it couldn’t afford to pay him a salary. So, he did what he could do to make his family’s company unique by setting up a blog and launching a website that gave laundry advice. 

Slowly, but surely, his reputation spread and he began making appearances on TV shows, where it wasn’t long before people started calling him the laundry prince. Now, he not only holds lessons for individuals but also for apparel companies to teach them how to take care of their products. He also acts as an adviser for manufacturers of cleaning products such as soap and washing nets. 

“I was a bit embarrassed at first (about being called the laundry prince) but now I am grateful because I think the name has given me an opportunity to work with many different people,” Nakamura says. 

Now 31 years old with two young children, Nakamura’s skills are often put to the test at home. He acknowledges that the current laundry trend is “instant cleaning,” in which an individual uses as little effort and time as possible to wash soiled clothing. The result, Nakamura says, is that people give up too easily if they fail to remove a stain immediately. 

“People like clean clothes,” Nakamura says. “Clean clothes make people happy. I just want to show everyone how fun and interesting washing clothes can be. And once people learn what a difference it makes to take that little extra step (in the washing process), it will change how they treat their clothes.” 

Yuichi Nakamura’s top cleaning tip: For food and wine stains, Nakamura advises people to use an undiluted liquid detergent and scrub on the spot with a toothbrush, which breaks the outer oil layer. Then, rinse the item with warm water (about 40 degrees Celsius). With old spots that are especially difficult to get out, rub in both acidic liquid bleach and acidic powder bleach, then use steam shots of an iron to heat the spots. Finally, soak the item for a while in warm water. “Most stains will come out, so don’t give up,” Nakamura says. “Stains will come out more often than you think. I think 90 percent of them will become clean.”