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O-souji: The New Year ritual that everybody loves in Japan

A Japanese man puts a new calendar on the wall on January 1 in Tokyo. Photo/Getty Images

The fastidious Japanese take dusting and cleaning to greater heights on the cusp of the New Year.

New Year is a time laden with ritual and tradition in Japan, none of it to do with Auld Lang Syne and resolutions that won’t see February.

People here eat soba because the long noodles are said to represent a long and healthy life, and they adorn their front doors with decorations made from pine and bamboo, which symbolise longevity and prosperity respectively.

Children look forward to the tradition of receiving small envelopes with about $50 in cash from their parents and grandparents.

There’s a televised singing contest that’s must-watch viewing across the country, usually enjoyed with family and trays of food that don’t require much cleaning up.

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Then there are the 108 bells that peal from neighbourhood Buddhist temples at midnight, and the New Year’s Day visits to shrines and temples to pray for good fortune in the coming year.

And there are the special New Year postcards, which the post office holds on to, no matter when in December they are posted, so that they reach their destination exactly on New Year’s Day.

But before all of this, there is the tradition known as o-souji, or “big cleaning”. It has a practical and a spiritual significance.

Whereas we might associate a big annual clean with spring, in Japan it’s done in the last days of the year – pretty much everywhere. Homes, schools and offices all get a thorough going over that creates a clean slate for the year ahead.

Japan is famed for its cleanliness. There are no shoes worn inside houses or schools, and the country’s decluttering practices have gone worldwide, thanks to Marie Kondo of “does it spark joy?” fame.

There are few public rubbish bins in Japan, even in parks popular for picnics or train stations, but you almost never encounter litter. I once saw a man vacuuming the footpath outside an office building. I’m not kidding.

In the final few days of the year, Japanese people spend several days cleaning all the places that might get missed during regular housework: wiping the tops of light fittings, removing dust bunnies from under couches and scrubbing balconies even in the middle of winter.

The most important part of the process is dusting, because it mixes a religious or spiritual component with the practical part. While getting rid of dust and dirt, many people think about the good things that have happened that year and wish for an even better year ahead.

By cleaning their homes and workplaces from top to bottom, Japanese people are purifying their environment and they believe this will allow the gods to enter and to bring happiness, health and wealth with them.

The year of 2017 feels as if it has been tumultuous. Sure, there has been no global financial crisis or regional war. But the news this year has felt relentless, in no small part because of the way Donald Trump has shaken up the US and the global order. Kim Jong-un has been doing his bit to upset the balance in Asia and keep us wondering if we’re about to have front-row seats in a theatre of nuclear war.

I’m not a fan of cleaning at the best of times, but right now, I’m ready to break out my dusting cloth and say out with the old and in with the new. And then to go and slurp some soba noodles and settle in for a night in front of the box. After all, when in Japan, do as the Japanese do.

Anna Fifield, a New Zealander, is Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.