Every summer when I go to Japan, the one thing that always impresses me is the public restrooms. There is never urine on the seats, never any vandalism, and no toilet paper strewn all over the stall like in the U.S. Of course, the U.S. and Japan have similarities and differences, but one that I find especially interesting is the norm in Japan of being responsible and respectful when using public spaces.
Undoubtedly public restrooms in America are not pleasant. So, what contributes to this difference in how people treat their public spaces? In Japan, from the moment you enter elementary school, you and your classmates clean your school every day. There is time blocked out within the daily schedule, usually in the afternoon, where students break up into groups and clean different parts of the school. This routine is standard in the majority of schools in Japan, and it is not just some light brooming of the floors.
On my first day of school in Japan, I distinctly remember after lunch all my classmates began to flip their chairs onto their desks and push their chair stacked desks to a corner of the classroom. I was puzzled. What was going on? Why were they making space? Were we going to have a dance battle? One of my classmates then entered the classroom with a bucket full of water and told me to get a "zokin" (a cloth for cleaning) and dunk it in the water and ring it out. I did as I was told, copying the student who had brought in the water bucket. She then got down on all-fours with her zokin under her hands and she started moving with her hind legs while holding down the cloth. She had turned into a human Swiffer Sweeper!
Other classmates and I joined in, and soon enough the floor sparkled. From the hallways, I could hear the laughter of other students as they raced across the floor with their zokin, cleaning the halls. Oh, what fun it was! Who would have imagined that a girl who could barely keep her room clean was running across the floor wiping down the floors, and enjoying it, but this was the "normal" for Japanese kids my age.
What cleaning my classrooms, the halls, and the stairs that I walked on every day taught me was a sense of responsibility. A responsibility that I was part of a bigger group of people who, together, cared for the environment that we spent our days in. While I was so accustomed to not having to clean at school, I learned that it was my duty--not just during the cleaning block, but also outside of it--to care about how I treated my space.
The results of the sense of responsibility that is ingrained in Japanese children from a young age can be seen not just in the public restrooms, but in the public transportation, malls, sidewalks, and so on. People don't have to be told to care and they also don't rely on others to clean up after them. Instead, it is the most pure form of "treat others the way you want to be treated," the good old American saying that is so often tossed around.
***Just a side note for those who are interested:
A school year in Japan is from April to March and there are minimal breaks during this time. Unlike in the U.S., there is no three-month summer break; instead, there is just one month, usually from the end of July to the end of August. While we in the U.S. are on summer break, there is still school going on in Japan which allowed me to attend a few weeks of school in Japan for four summers!