Communing Through Cleaning
In a country known for rigid hierarchy, the sight of the school principal on hands and knees might seem strange. But in Japan, it's just souji time-the period of about 15 minutes each day when students, teachers, and administrators all drop whatever they are doing, pull out the buckets and mops, and give everything a good scrub.
Most Japanese schools don't employ janitors, but the point is not to cut costs. Rather, the practice is rooted in Buddhist traditions that associate cleaning with morality-a concept that contrasts sharply with the Greco-Roman notion of cleaning as a menial task best left to the lower classes.
"Education is not only teaching subjects but also cooperation with others, ethics, a sense of responsibility, and public morality. Doing chores contributes to this," says Katsko Takahashi, a member of the Board of Education in Nanae, a suburban town in Hokkaido. "Besides, if students make a mess, they know they will have to clean it up. So naturally, they try to keep things clean."
At lunchtime, the students even don hairnets and help serve and clear away dishes from the midday meal. "Cleaning is just one part of a web of activities that signal to children that they are valued members of a community," says Christopher Bjork, an educational anthropologist at Vassar College.
Peer pressure. Community is also built in the classroom. Rather than having students move between classes when subjects change, the teachers rotate, leaving students with the same classmates for much of the day. The idea is to get students to function harmoniously in a group. If a student shouts during class, for instance, or won't clean, it's largely up to classmates to pressure him to behave.
Getting individualistic American kids to cooperate is a harder task, but some American educators see lessons in the Japanese model. The Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School in Boston has adapted many elements of the Japanese system, including homeroom groups and daily cleaning.
"I've learned to pick up after myself," says Mary-Rose Delapp, 12, a student at the academy. "When cleaning time comes, I'm helping my classmates, and I think that prepares me for a life of helping people."
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.