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This Japanese New Year’s Ritual Is the Fresh Start We All Desperately Need

While we can’t erase 2020 from existence, Oosouji can help you clear it all out.

Those tired resolutions that fade by February are no match for the dumpster fire of the last year. Ditch them, because there couldn’t be a better time for Japan’s Oosouji—the Big Cleaning.

The Japanese believe that taking unresolved baggage into a new year is unlucky, whether it’s literal clutter, unfinished business, or damaging thoughts. So this yearly ritual is not just a literal scrubbing of the space we’ve hunkered down in for months, but it’s a ritualistic reset designed to clear out the evil spirits and bad mojo that lurk in our lives.

2020 has messed with our sense of safety, moods, relationships, routines, and literal health. If there was ever a year to jump on a safe, healthy, feel-good practice, this is it.

More Than a Chore—Why Japan Is So Clean

Japanese cleanliness is legendary. Travelers have raved about it for centuries. Today, clips of children willingly scrubbing their school every day mesmerize parents and teachers worldwide. Japan’s soccer fans went viral when they brought their own trash bags and cleaned up after the 2018 World Cup matches. The team even left their locker room spotless with a thank you note after their loss.

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While private homes may not always match the tidy public perception, there is more to this than just national pride. Cleanliness is rooted in the beliefs of Japan’s major religions, Shinto and Buddhism, where neatness is not only about physical health but also spiritual safety and well-being.

Buddhism acknowledges the interdependence of all things and embraces impermanence. To tidy and clean honors our holistic health and our connection to the environment around us. And clearing out clutter helps us practice that letting go concept that everyone singing. Cleaning, from a Buddhist stance, is a spiritual exercise and form of mindfulness.

But many nations where people practice Buddhism don’t have Japan’s reputation for spotlessness. Japan was already open to the idea when Buddhism arrived. The answer goes even further, back to the indigenous faith of Japan: Shinto.

In this faith, bad things happen because of evil spirits, and purification welcomes the gods that keep them away. The deities of Shintoism abandon those with kegare, the literal and metaphorical impure and dirty state. And one person’s kegare can bring harm to an entire community. For this collective society, keeping things fresh and clean is for the good of everyone.

Ringing in the New Year With Good Luck…and Health

Let’s face it—most of us aren’t living this kind of tidy life daily. But this is the most critical time to get your act together. A clean home at any time will give you a particular satisfaction but, with Oosouji, if you get your stuff sorted, the bad luck of the past year’s problems won’t follow you.

As a therapist for almost 20 years, I can assure you there is always value in closing practices to end one chapter of your life and move on to the next. The rougher the chapter, the bigger the ritual. You’ve got nothing to lose except lingering junk.

Toshigami is the New Year’s guest that Oosouji tries to please. This is the deity that rolls in with the New Year, bringing blessings and good luck to those showing the proper respect. Toshigami often embodies one’s ancestors, and it’s extra rude to offer up a mess when the family comes over. A tidy place means a satisfied kami deity and blessings for the whole year.

Whether the Shinto kami visit you or not, the health benefits are for everyone. It wasn’t that long ago that we were all scrambling to buy sanitizer from the distilling dregs. No one needs a lecture on killing germs during a pandemic.

But there are mental health benefits that aren’t as obvious. People that report living in uncluttered homes also report better mood, sleep, and concentration. Mindful cleaning, like Oosouji, levels up and reduces nervousness. And even light cleaning gives you an endorphin boost. Finally, as a therapist for almost 20 years, I can assure you there is always value in closing practices to end one chapter of your life and move on to the next. The rougher the chapter, the bigger the ritual. You’ve got nothing to lose except lingering junk.

How to Get the Most Out of Oosouji

First, get your clutter out, sort, organize, donate, sell, or pitch what you no longer need. The pandemic has given many of us time to learn a new hobby, start a project, or shop online. It’s also given us time to reflect on what’s important. Use Oosouji to commit to what you started, or let go.

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Next, Oosouji is not just about cleaning but doing it systematically. This isn’t just another day of tedious to-dos. Oosouji is a ritual, an act of moving meditation. Start at your home’s entry and work clockwise around the room, cleaning top to bottom as you wipe, sweep, vacuum, and mop. As you go, consider this as a clearing out of all that didn’t work and a fresh start.

Finally, remove stains and fix or get rid of things that don’t work. Symbolic of the negative impacts of the last year, try not to pile it up or leave it for another day. Remember the concept of leaving bad luck and brokenness behind. Get rid of what doesn’t work, whether it’s batteries or a toxic relationship.

A few hints before you get going. If you live with others, this is a family or housemates project—you can’t just start giving things away without input. Oosouji is good for everyone, and the more, the merrier.

If you are going solo, this is not one of those times to use your resentment to fuel you toward cleaning martyrdom. The real goal is a positive mindset. We’ve made it through the first year of a pandemic, something the world hasn’t done in a century. Let yourself feel the comfort and pride of finishing this challenging year and the thrill of hope for 2021 and better days.

mikehinshaw5129 January 1, 2021

Having had the pleasure of spending the holidays in Japan a couple of times, I learned that this philosophy extends beyond the home. My son and I participated with my daughter-in-law in cleaning her family's shrine at their cemetery. It was a unique experience and took about an hour. There is a definitive process that all families participate in with their family shrines. In addition to the cleaning process, there were additional activities transpiring with actors, etc celebrating the day. A true cultural event!