Souji: Scrub a Toilet, Scrub Your Soul

Japanese middle school hallway

To me, one of the most interesting things about the way education is done here in Japan is that it encompasses more than just academics, and the entire school day is used as learning experience. For instance, during the times that are designated as "breaks," the students can often be expected to be doing extra work for classes or getting ready for something. Even the way the students greet teachers in the hallways is scrutinized and upheld as just as important as say math or science. Every bit of time during the school day is considered part of their education.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Japanese school day to American eyes is the fact that the students are the ones cleaning the school. Each day after lunch and before afternoon classes begin a ten-minute chunk of time is set aside for souji or cleaning. During this time, the students to focus on making their assigned piece of the school (everywhere from the classrooms to the bathrooms) sparkle.

At the beginning of the term, each student is assigned to a specific location where they'll clean until they're reassigned next term. The students work in groups of mixed grade levels, and the most senior one will act as leader, making sure that everything that needs to get done is covered. Their individual duties vary depending on the day, but some typical things that you'll see students doing include sweeping, mopping, wiping surfaces, and cleaning the floors by hand (have you ever seen the scene in Totoro where the two sisters are wiping down the floors in their new home, running up and down the hallway holding rags to the floor with their butts in the air? Yeah, this one. Like that).


The logic behind having the students clean the school is that souji teaches students things on several fronts that classroom time can't. For one thing, this is the main way that students learn how to clean as Japanese children are often not expected to do housework at home so that they can focus on their studies. It's also meant to teach the students in different grade levels how to work together - for the older students to learn how to lead and for the younger ones to learn how to look up to their senpai, upperclassmen.

Most importantly though, souji is supposed to help children learn to respect their surroundings. Perhaps it is not the best idea to make a mess if you're the one who has to clean it, after all. Additionally, it is meant to foster appreciation for the people in society who do these kinds of jobs. A commonly used slogan is "心を磨く" or, "heart scrubbing," indicating that through cleaning the school, the students are also cleaning their hearts.  

Whether or not that really works is up for debate. At one of my schools, I'm permanently assigned to the lunch room, and so far I've had four different groups rotate through. And while some students take their job seriously and end up really making the place spotless in the span of ten minutes, naturally, there are also students who don't, and you definitely do see kids literally standing in one place for ten minutes, eyes glazed over, sweeping the same 3 square feet.

But overall, in my experience, it does appear to be an effective way of cleaning at least, as the school doesn't really get dirty in the way that my own high school seemed to (though there is a school custodian to catch all the missed spots!)