While it is the time of the year for preparing Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties in many countries, in Japan things are a little different. It is the time when people return to their hometown to enjoy a few days together with their families. However, the lack of parties does not mean Japanese people do not have any rituals or culture in welcoming the new year. The one custom which I love the most, called o-souji (大掃除), is when you have to do a big cleaning before the year’s end. This big cleaning usually takes place in your workplace and your home.
In the West, the big cleaning is commonly held at the beginning of spring, and people usually call it “Spring Cleaning”. In Japan, o-souji is literally formed by 掃除 (そうじ, souji, to clean) and 大(おお, o-, big), so o-souji can be defined as “a big cleaning” and it is done by the end of the year. Back in the Edo period when most Japanese houses had hearths and fire stoves, the house would rather get dirty by the end of the year. Edo Castle started to be cleaned in December, and people started to believe that the December cleaning was not merely a matter of cleaning the house, but also as a purification ritual in preparation for greeting the New Year God, Toshigami-sama.
Therefore, the Japanese belief that o-souji is more than only getting your house prepared for the coming of the whole family continues today. It symbolizes a fresh spirit and a new beginning. The most important part of o-souji, known as susuharai (煤払い, dust cleaning), is the act of cleaning your home and workplace from dust and dirt. While doing susuharai, we also give thanks for the blessings of the previous year and we clean to purify the spaces for the year to come.
The o-souji ritual used to start around the second week of December, starting at the 13th day. But nowadays the ritual seems to be done a lot later, even as late as the last day of December (大晦日, o-misoka, December 31st). In many companies, schools, or work places, o-souji is held just before the Christmas holiday comes, around December 23rd or 24th.
Though it seems like space cleaning is an easy task to do, while doing o-souji, parts of the home or office that are usually not cleaned—ventilation fans and windows, the hard-to-get-to tops of tall shelves, lamps, and storage areas that are usually not normally accessed — are all cleaned at this time of year, which makes New Year’s cleaning rather demanding physical work. At this time of the year, fill your house with cleaning products, and pay attention to removing dirt from the parts of your house that never got your attention before. When your living and working space are clean and tidy, you will find that your mood is actually lifted and you are ready to welcome the new year with a new mind!