Cleaning, Post Cards and Visting Shrines: It isn’t about how good it works

Cleaning, New Years Cards and Shrines

New Years in Japan means three things, all of which I would rather pass on, cleaning, New Years cards, and visiting shrines. My conclusion this year is that the actual effects these activities produce is much less important than the act of doing them.

Cleaning, or oosoji(大掃除) is when people do a very thorough cleaning and repair in their homes and in other buildings that they are associated with, like dojos, offices, temples, and public centers. The effect of this period of cleaning and repair is beneficial for everyone, as homes and other buildings are refreshed from top to bottom. I prefer to take care of this cleaning more systematically over the whole year, thoroughly cleaning one room each month all year round, while doing daily cleaning chores. That way when I get done with work at the end of December, there aren’t huge cleaning projects waiting for me on the holidays.

This year I discovered that it wasn’t as important that I actually cleaned much as long as I participated in the process. I tried to convince my wife that I clean and repair all year ’round so I don’t have to do it all in a few days at the end of the year. She said that it doesn’t so much matter how well or how much I clean, as long as I am participating. After discussing this with another Japanese man, I am convinced that the actual cleaning is of secondary importance to participation in the activity. While things like paper doors get fixed and living spaces get cleaner, the emphasis is on participation with the people that inhabit them.

New Years cards, or nengajyou (年賀状) are cards that, if you post before some date December, will be delivered to the recipients on New Years Day. They are a great thing, and everyone enjoys getting them, but with everything else I have to do, I would prefer to communicate with people year ’round, not have a pile of post cards to write in a hurry at the end of the year.

I concluded this year that there is no actual need to be very communicative, to make cogent comments or ask good questions. The emphasis is simply on the sending of them. “Please, associate with me this year,” or a simple “Happy New Year” is enough. Again the emphasis is not on how well you do the job, in this case of communicating, it’s just participating that counts.

Visiting shrines at the beginning of the year, or hatsumode (初詣) is an activity that I would rather avoid. There are tons of people lined up to make wishes for the coming year at shrines everywhere. I’d rather stay warm at home, or if I have to go out, then take a walk with the dog or play with the kids than to stand in line outside a Shinto Shrine to make a wish for stuff that I believe these corrupted places of worship have absolutely no control over.

In actual fact, I don’t think that if other people in line were asked whether making wishes at shrines works, they would probably say no, if they could even answer the question at all,  because is the question is so immaterial to the behavior.  They are there because they go every year, and so does everyone else. Fulfillment of wishes is never evaluated.

My conclusion is that these activities are important for the simple reason that everyone does them together. The actual effectiveness of the cleaning, communication, or prayer is hardly a part of the equation. At the end of this year I will smile at my beautiful wife and participate without questions or protest.

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