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Let’s Dating – Talking Dirty: Cleanliness is Sexiness

People often ask me about what it’s like to date a Japanese man and how different it is from dating Americans or other Westerners. Depending on how much time I have, I may answer with the vague and unsatisfying, "Oh, it’s not that different. People are all basically the same." However, if I have more time to delve into the nitty-gritty (literally), one not-so-common topic I like to bring up is cleanliness and how differently it’s perceived in Japan.

Back in my early days here, my mom sent me a newspaper clipping about the Japanese custom of souji. If you’ve never spent any time in a Japanese junior high or high school and have not experienced it for yourself, souji is the time of day – and I should stress that this is every day – usually just after lunch, when all the students spend about 20 or 30 minutes thoroughly cleaning the school, doing everything from washing the blackboards to sweeping the hallways.

The article mentioned how great it is that Japanese students all pitch in to keep their learning environment clean, and how this cuts down on instances of vandalism and leads to a greater sense of civic responsibility. It also cited how the idea of maintaining clean surroundings actually dates back to Confucius, and that this represents one of the great divides between Greco-Roman and Asian schools of thought. While in Asia cleaning is a task that is to be divided equally amongst members of a group and represents a way of bringing them together (and closer to spirituality), the Greco-Roman tradition associates cleaning with the lower classes, which is why jobs like janitors and house-cleaners are still stigmatized in the West and cleaning is often looked down upon as annoying, inconvenient, and sometimes even downright demeaning. Fine, you may be thinking, but what on earth does this have to do with dating and relationships? The answer is: more than you might think!

First, consider the fact that the Japanese word for "clean" and "beautiful" is the same – kirei. Mere coincidence? Nah. Cleanliness is so revered here that many business owners spend the first part of their day washing and removing debris from the pavement outside their shops as a way of readying themselves for the day and indicating that they are preparing to open their doors to guests. On multiple occasions I’ve even seen some dedicated men and women out there with their watering cans and scrub brushes in the rain.

The idea that you should only welcome visitors or guests into a clean environment extends beyond the business world to your living space. Having a messy apartment in the West might make you seem eccentric, scatterbrained, or even just lazy, but it’s rarely given as a reason to reject someone outright. In Japan, it can often be the kiss of death. (Refer to JZ’s Girly Guide to Dating in Japan here.)

If you’re thinking about moving in with a Japanese partner, you should be prepared for the fact that many arguments are likely to ensue from incongruous opinions on what constitutes a clean living space. Now I’ll admit that I have only lived with a handful of Japanese people, but across the board they have been much more particular about maintaining a sparkling clean household than any Western roommate I’ve had. SC regularly gets on my case about going through my stuff and throwing away the things I no longer use or need. And though I do whatever I can to weasel my way out of the ritual osouji cleaning before New Year’s, he absolutely refuses to ring in the New Year with even a particle of last year’s dust hanging around, and would rather prefer I adopted the same approach.

This reverence for cleanliness is not just evident at school or at home, but relates to your own physical being. Again, you might be thinking – OK, so people here are pretty strict about personal hygiene (though maybe not all the salarymen on the train…), but what’s the connection? Well, let me put it this way: many people here believe that you should not welcome any, ahem, visitors to the inner sanctum of your person without taking the appropriate cleaning measures. I’ve been surprised on more than a few occasions when, before hitting the sheets, I’ve been gently guided, subtly shown to, and sometimes (lovingly) shoved towards a shower. It would seem that some Japanese don’t want to get dirty with someone until they’re nice and clean. The first few times this happened, I thought it was just a fluke, but eventually I realized going to bed without your bath seems to be a deal-breaker for a fair number of fellows. And it’s a two-way street – they don’t feel comfortable getting down to business until they’ve had a chance to ensure they are sparkling clean downstairs. In some ways, it’s a shame since it takes the spontaneity out of getting it on and it must have some impact on the whole pheromone attraction thing (plus think of all the water that’s wasted on bathing before and after the act). Still, there is something to be said for falling into bed with a freshly bathed bod. Now those large luxurious showers at love hotels make so much more sense, since a good sudsing up is apparently part of the foreplay.

While the exact wording may not be attributed to him, and it has yet to appear on any fortune cookies (that I’ve seen anyway), we can thank Confucius for the modern Japanese belief that cleanliness is indeed sexiness.