Five Things

The third Sunday of every other month is neighbourhood cleanup day, a responsibility that every suburban home owner across much of Japan must participate in. The day itself may change from region to region, but the efforts are about the same. People in a neighbourhood block get together in front of the area leader's house at a pre-determined time, listen to some updates about coming changes or the comings and goings of residents1, then get to work cleaning the drainage gutters and tidying up around the houses. It's not at all a glamorous task, but there is some genuine good that comes from this tradition that, according to a neighbour of mine, goes back almost 400 years to Japan's Edo period.

Neighbours See Each Other

The first decade of living in Japan was done mostly in rented apartments where the practice of cleaning up the area is just not required. There are companies hired by the landlords that come around every so often to ensure the buildings are generally presentable. As a result, the only time I would see a neighbour was if they just happened to be outside when it was time to bring Nozomi for a walk. There was one neighbour who I regularly spoke to at the last apartment, but he moved out a couple of years before the boy was born. People generally kept to themselves.

Neighbourhood cleaning encourages people to go out and mingle with their neighbours while performing a common task. A lot of people generally talk to the people who live on properties that are immediately next to or behind them, but the neighbourhood is a long rectangle consisting of 22 houses. My house is on the north-eastern corner and it's very rare that I ever see the people who live in the south-west unless they're driving by. While I am not particularly proactive in meeting new people, I do generally enjoy chatting. Many people might feel the same way.

A Common Goal

The purpose of the neighbourhood cleanup is not just to ensure the roads and gutters are clear of debris, though this is a lovely byproduct of the habit. The goal is to enshrine a feeling of pride and responsibility. We're all responsible for the appearance and atmosphere of this little slice of the country so, if it is kept in good shape, everybody wins. Property values depreciate slower2, potential home-owners are more willing to move in, and people generally feel better about being at home. Nobody wants to live in a filthy area.

After the Cleanup

One thing that I found completely unsurprising about the neighbourhood cleanup was what happened afterwards. People would return to their homes and begin cleaning their yards3 or chat with neighbours. For me, I generally pick weeds just outside the fence to keep the area looking nice, given that this house is generally the first one that people see when returning to their own home. Being "only 40 years old", I'm occasionally asked to help with some heavy lifting nearby and this is a good opportunity to learn more about the people around here. Everybody knows about the boy, as he's the youngest person in the area4, and they love to ask questions about what he can and can't do just yet. This sort of neighbourly help was a common thing when I lived in rural Ontario, but was non-existent in the cities. All in all, it's a good excuse to help each other out.

A Critical Eye

Cleaning the neighbourhood gives a person some incentive to look at their own home and see what can be done about any shortcomings rather than ignore small problems in the present until they're bigger problems in the future. Going around my own home, I've found situations where part of my fence needed repair5, soil was eroding, and eavestroughs weren't catching enough rainwater as it slid off the roof. None of these things were serious when discovered, but they could have led to bigger issues down the road.

A Good Example

Kids in Japan are expected to clean their schools. Not just the classrooms, but the hallways and toilets as well. Non-executive employees in Japan are expected to clean their offices. Not just the desks, but the carpets and toilets as well. Children will see their parents going out on a Sunday to help keep the neighbourhood clean and recognize it as an important civic responsibility. By setting a good example, there's a greater chance that the tradition will continue into the future as kids become adults and buy their own homes one day. It's our responsibility to keep the places we use and enjoy in good working order, after all, and nobody is exempt6 from this social expectation.

These are some of the reasons that I enjoy and appreciate the neighbourhood cleanup day.

  1. This would involve hearing about who had recently given birth, who has moved into the neighbourhood, who has moved out, and who has passed away. In my neighbourhood, where the median age is somewhere north of 60, we generally hear about who has passed away two or three times per year.

  2. Land values depreciate so fast in this country it's a wonder anyone buys property. I've heard a number of people in real estate say that land is generally worth something until there is a house on it. Given the sticker price for the 70m² plot of land with my name on it was higher than the cost of the house by $20K, this doesn't bode well for the assessed value of the largest asset I'll ever own.

  3. Given that most people around here retired over a decade ago, the yards are already generally quite clean.

  4. There are a dozen or so kids under the age of 14 in the neighbourhood. This isn't a retirement village, but many of the residents did move here in the 70s with their own young children. People have grown up, moved out, and started families of their own. When people pass away, the children take over the home and generally have it torn down and the land put up for sale. This isn't always for financial reasons, either, as many people tend to move to other parts of the country for work or education in their 20s. It's just not realistic to leave a house abandoned for sentimental value, particularly when governments are now charging homeowners a 12% annual tax for leaving a house empty.

  5. Nothing serious, give the fence isn't yet a year old. One of the brick tiles had come loose and needed some better adhesive to stay on the post. Fortunately this was covered under warranty.

  6. Some people may choose to not do it, but this doesn't make them exempt.