How Cleaning Toilets Builds Society

My husband, founder and CEO of his organization, gets to his office before anyone else. The first thing he does is to clean the toilet. “It doesn’t take much time,” he says. Producers of the TV show where my husband appeared loved this detail so much they tried to cram three camera crew members into his office’s tiny toilet to film him cleaning.

My daughter entered the local elementary school last April. One of the first things she was assigned to was a small cleaning group. “How’s she doing?,” my coworker asked about her entering first grade. “She loves to clean the toilet.” My coworker laughed, “So did my son. I don’t know why they love to clean the toilet. It must be because they splash the water around.” The assignment changes. Right now, she says her group is assigned to  Aozora classroom and the nearby hallway. At the start of each semester, all students have to bring two new pieces of zōkin (dust cloths). This is what they do with them.


From Yusuke Japan Blog. More photos in his blog of school kids cleaning.

At the private Catholic school in Manila I went to, it was unthinkable for students to clean. That’s what the janitors are there for — men and women who wore t-shirts and carried themselves in a manner that was distinctly of a lower class than us students. It’s in the way they try to make themselves invisible, the way they use po and opo when speaking to us students even though they were much older than us. When a toilet is left unflushed with its ominous contents still floating around, we called a janitor. When the school bell rings to mark the end of classes, kids make a mad dash for the playground or for the gates to go home, leaving janitors to sweep the classroom floors littered with paper scraps and odds and ends, and to align the tables and chairs for the next day.

Occasionally, for CLE (Christian Living Education) class — it was a Catholic school — an item of this sort would appear in our exam:

Which of the following is a good sacrifice for the Lenten season?

a. Giving part of your allowance to the poor
b. Not eating candy and chocolates 
c. Helping the janitor tidy up the classroom after the bell rings
d. All of the above are good sacrifices

Cleaning is a sacrifice, something one does to earn spiritual points, and feel good about yourself but is otherwise optional — you can always pay someone to clean up after you. At home, there are no janitors, but there are maids, househelp usually paid less than the standard minimum wage and working more hours than a regular job.

What does this have to do with building society? If a school can afford it, shouldn’t they hire help to clean so that the kids can focus on learning math and science? What happens when schools insist on having a specific period devoted to cleaning?

You have kids who take care of school property, because they know hard it is to clean  something too messy or dirty. You have kids who are considerate of other kids, because everyone will have to take turns cleaning different areas of the school. You have kids who bring this habit back home. Cleaning is not only fun — it makes the place they inhabit welcoming and pretty. You have kids who have pride and a sense of responsibility and ownership of their school, a place where they first learn what it means to be a citizen. Kids clean not because they want to earn spiritual points, but because it is the right thing to do and because it is important to pull your own weight. When everyone does, the work is light.

Because all local schools practice this, you end up with a society that’s world renowned for its cleanliness. Japanese parents scold their kids when they dirty the train seats with their shoes or with their snacks. Neighborhoods have regular clean-up days when everyone dons work gloves, weeding tools, brooms, dust cloths.

You also end up with a society populated with considerate citizens, anticipating the needs of others. When it snows, everyone comes out and pitches in to clear the paths. One of our neighbors Mo-chan went all the way to the bridge and shoveled there by herself (people were still busy shoveling near their houses and the bridge was quite a way off from the houses). I asked her why she was so far from her house. “The school kids walk and bike through here. They might slip.” Yes Mo-chan has school aged kids but I did not get the sense that she was doing it only for her own kids.

And it boils down to love. My husband loves his workplace and his staff. Cleaning the toilet is a small thing to do for them.

Japan is a place where you find people in the service industry who obviously love their jobs. There’s the gas attendant at Eneos whose missing teeth do not stop him from giving us a big smile or enthusiastic service as he fills up our tank and offers us more products from his station. My husband is always tempted to buy more from him.  There’s Morita-san from Kappasushi (a chain restaurant) who energetically leads her customers to her tables and attends to their every whim. There’s the 7-11 guys behind the counter who see my husband coming through the door and already pull out the L-sized paper cup for his morning latte. With Japan’s shrinking population, more and more foreigners are working these jobs and sadly, we do not see the same level of enthusiasm and top-notch service exhibited by their Japanese counterparts. My husband and I were trying to put a finger on the difference. “I know what they remind me of,” I said, “Filipino office or government workers just watching the clock till they can go home.” Of course, there are Japanese employees who watch the clock too and there are foreigners who provide exemplary service, but by and large,  the differences are too noticeable to ignore.

My social psychology professor back in graduate school asked an intriguing question, “Do people’s attitude change their behavior, or do people’s behavior change their attititude?” The attitude-changes-behavior paradigm seems more logical, that’s why we’re fond of campaigns to raise awareness. We hope that when people understand and appreciate the issues, they would behave accordingly. If you see how black your lungs will become, you will quit smoking too!

But social psychological experiments have shown that it is more powerful to change a person’s behavior first in order to change their attitudes. In one experiment for example, one set of participants were asked to hold a pen in their mouth so that their mouth is forced into an O-shape while another set of participants didn’t have to do this. Both sets were shown comic strips. The pen-holders (who cannot smile) rated the comics significantly less funny than the free-smilers. When there is cognitive dissonance, our brain tries to resolve this discomfort by adjusting our attitudes about the behavior we just performed. I’m not smiling or laughing so this strip must not be funny. (Read the above link for more such experiments and for explanation on how behaviors can influence people’s attitudes).

The kids do not clean the school because they love the school.

They love the school because they clean it.

And this is how cleaning toilets builds society.

8 responses to “How Cleaning Toilets Builds Society

  1. I agree with this she. 1000%. Personally, I think we were too spoiled in GS and HS. Alam mo truth be told, I only learned to be really independent was when I studied in Beijing. Nung walang helpers I had to do everything myself. But you know what, I was glad that we were taught to clean the house. I didn’t like it then, but I saw the benefit of having to learn it. I learned it and kept it in stock, but for sure may classmates tayo na kinalumutan na yon altogether. I saw nga a video recently about Taiwan, that 20 years ago it was a dirty messy place. Then what the schools did was to have the kids come in and clean their classrooms EVERYDAY. This formed a habit in the kids that they brought to their homes and in themselves. 20 years later, Taiwan is cleaner and more organized. So I believe this method is really beneficial to the kids and to the society. Now, how to convince the school to adapt this.

  2. Just this morning on my way to work. I saw a little girl go to the curb of the street and throw out her plastic cup. As I drove closer I saw her mother standing behind her watching approvingly that her daughter was able to throw the cup on her own. I thought to myself–that would never happen in Japan. At my school, students leave the classroom in disray and when I try to model the behavior of cleaning up after themselves, they act as if its my job any how as I get paid as a teacher. So totally agree, in the Philippines, the concept that cleaning is only for those of a lower class or position is an obstacle to caring and nation building because at every level of society, each one thinks that there is a lower class that should do the “undesirable” tasks. Thank you for writing this.

  3. Thanks for this She.<3 Really good reflection points about changing behavior and attitude. Will def chew on this more. Hope you don't mind me sharing 🙂 Looking forward to reading more of your writing 🙂

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