Clean and Bright

People waiting for the first sunrise of the year at the top of Mt. Hiwada (January 2015).

People waiting for the first sunrise of the year at the top of Mt. Hiwada (January 2015).

New Year’s is one of those few times of the year when I do not miss home and am actually quite content to be here in Tokyo. Yes, you read that right. I may be one of the few odd Filipinos quite happy to be away from Manila for New Year’s. I do not miss headache-inducing noise, the barrage of firecrackers, the burning of tires in the streets (I shudder thinking of all the toxins released into the air by this cheap alternative to firecrackers), the danger of stray bullets from guns foolishly fired into the air, and the thick smog that hovers ominously over the city and inevitably makes your nostrils turn black. This way of celebrating the coming of the new year is largely influenced by the Chinese belief that loud noises drive away evil spirits and misfortune. All I can think of when I see the pollution and the toll of the injured and dead is how these customs spell nothing but bad luck.

The Japanese way of welcoming the new year is without doubt more auspicious. Take oosoji, the end of the year extensive house cleaning. I believe every household has that black hole of a closet (or cabinet, or drawer, or shelf) that attracts all manner of things: things that used to be useful, things that we think might be useful in the future, things that we paid a lot for but never used, things that remind us of happy times or of our younger selves, and “I am not sure what these are because they are thickly covered in dust so let’s keep them anyway” things. Black hole closets are daunting and like real life black holes in space, stuff goes in but rarely out; it’s hard to know everything that’s in them anyway. We have managed to put off cleaning out our own black holes year after year but before the year ended, we finally decided to set about the task. We threw out three big bags of garbage and passed on two big bags of stuff that could still be used at my husband’s office. We also gave away an entire dumbbell set that has been sitting idly for years on to someone who could put them to use through Freecycle, a grassroots nonprofit network founded on the principles of reusing and keeping perfectly good stuff out of landfills and incinerators.

When we went to visit Meiji Shrine over the holiday, this was the poem that we drew:

My mirror every morning

so spotlessly clear —

Thus might it ever be

With the human heart!

Empress Shoken

It was a most appropriate poem to describe the spirit of our oosoji.  The mess in our physical environment reflects the chaos of our thoughts and emotions. It is very difficult to focus, get direction, reflect or go into quiet meditation when we are surrounded by things that are no longer useful or that no longer inspire us. Black hole clutters suck up our energy. In contrast, when there is an abundance of clean open spaces, air and light easily flow through. There is more breathing room and our minds are clearer and our hearts less crowded. I once visited Kyu-Iwasaki-tei Gardens and the main attraction in the premises is the impressive manor composed of a Western style wing and a Japanese style wing.  Most visitors linger in the more ornate Western wing where there are more things to see, but I was mostly awed by the Japanese part of the residence. There were large classic tatami rooms and paintings on the sliding doors but what captivate me the most was just the expansiveness of pure space. It didn’t feel at all like the room was empty. I wished I could spend an entire afternoon in this tatami room to meditate or to paint the gorgeous gardens outside.

This brings us to inner oosoji. For many Japanese, midnight on New Year’s Eve reverberates with the ringing of temple bells across the country. Called joya-no-kane, listening to the 108 times temple bells toll purifies us of the 108 worldly desires. Whether we are Buddhists or not, taking down the old calendar and putting up a fresh one brings with it a feeling of hope, a chance to begin anew, and the anticipation of the possibilities. Change, no matter how daunting, seems conceivable and that’s why the new year is a popular time for making resolutions. Oosoji prepares us to physically, mentally, and spiritually receive the opportunities that would come our way.

This outer and inner de-cluttering recalls one of the buzzwords here in Japan: Danshari (断捨離). Advocated by self-help author Hideko Yamashita, it is a three-step system to simplify our lives and free ourselves from excess. The three steps are as follows: 1. 断 To refuse, 2. 捨 to throw away, and 3. 離 to separate. You can read more about Danshari  from Japan Times’ Michael Hoffman who wrote about it in English, but I would just like to share some of my own thoughts on each of these steps.

To refuse to bring in unnecessary new things into your life. To refuse is to stop the clutter before it even begins. What this also tells me is that de-cluttering is an ongoing process and that we always have to keep choosing to live a simple life. That is, we have to decide from moment to moment to say no to impulse purchases, to freebies we don’t need, and all the trappings of the lifestyle of our fantasy selves.   Just the other day, I saw a comic strip that showed a woman busy doing oosoji in her home and in the last frame, she said, “De-cluttering accomplished” and her dog quipped “For now” — a humorous reminder of the unending nature of de-cluttering.

To throw away existing clutter. This may sound harsh but I read this step as not necessarily throwing things away with our weekly garbage, but as getting rid of things we don’t need. Let me just go back to our experience with Freecycle that I mentioned above. My husband was ready to just throw out the dumbbell set along with our nonburnable garbage but I told him that it might be better to ask if there were people who wanted it. He was skeptical. The dumbbells have been sitting in the closet for years and I guess like many of our stuff, it is difficult to imagine anyone would want them when we don’t. So I posted an ad on Freecycle. Within minutes, I got a response. Within 24 hours, I have received over twelve inquiries. They say that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure and it takes just a little effort to find a new home for the stuff you don’t want.

Finally, to separate from material desire. This attitude, a kind of inner oosoji if you will,  helps us do the first two steps. Detachment from material things stems from a conviction that we are not our possessions. At the same time, we also do not judge or equate other people with theirs. Separating from material desire frees us to see ourselves as we are (and all the good that is in there), without our material crutches.

Have a happy, clean and bright new year ahead!


First appeared on Eco+Waza’s now defunct webzine.

4 responses to “Clean and Bright

  1. Nice to see Hiwada san, I have often thought of it while being away. Good on ya that you climbed in the early morning.

  2. Sheri,

    I hope I am doing the responding accurately; this auntie is not compu-savvy!

    A good message and story deserves repetition. I am glad this blog of yours gets another go around, and hopefully more rounds on the web for fresh readers to peruse for its message is so needed to hopefully put a little brake (in the best scenario it should at this point in our planetary evolution: a total stop!) to our non-stop material consumption. Or else, what a junkyard of refuse the children of the future will have to cleanup!

    I enjoyed visualizing the minimalist, open-spaced living environment of the Japanese. I think that one’s psyche expand more in clean, uncluttered spaces, not to mention an elegance of spirit exudes in simplicity.



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