Have you been watching the World Cup? I have. I have no idea who is actually going to win in terms of the tournament itself, but I do know who has already won everyone’s hearts: Japan.

It started with a picture of the locker room that went viral. The usual post-game locker scene is a sort of “healthy, athletic rampage,” but the Japanese locker room was immaculate.

After their game, the team had cleaned up after themselves. They even left little origami gifts. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, their fans actually cleaned up the litter-strewn stadium. It seems to connect to other of their cultural norms.

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Now, I’ve never been to Japan, so I cannot swear to the details of this, but I’ve read a lot about the practice there of having schoolchildren clean their own classrooms and I like it.

Every day, students from the early grades on up put down their pencils, pick up their dustpans and get to work cleaning their area. Sometimes older students come down to help the little ones, and some grades go out into the community to clean instead. They have special coverings for their clothes and hair and afterwards they go out to play.

This sounds amazing to me, and actually very Montessori if we want to look to a more familiar educational model. I have read that Japanese schools don’t even employ janitors, but I’ve also read that’s a bit of an overstatement, which makes more sense to me. A professional comes around to make sure things really are clean and sanitized and to deal with the big stuff.


I love, really love, this idea. And, oddly, I also had an immediate “no” in my head. If you did too, I’d ask you sit with that for a minute and ask yourself “why?”

For me, I realized there were a few different assumptions I was making, none of them great.

My first assumption was that the kids weren’t competent, they couldn’t do it. This one is tricky because I’m sort of not wrong. But then I look at other cultures where small toddlers are competently wielding large blades to chop up melons and I have to wonder if that isn’t the point. We become competent when we are given the chance and the expectation to be.

Right behind that, though, was “but the kids didn’t do anything wrong.” Clearly, somewhere in my brain, despite my logical knowledge, cleaning up feels like some sort of punishment. Man, I need to untangle that.

Cleaning up is respect. For self, for others, for places. I feel at peace, not punished, when I have made my home neat and tidy. Why would that same thing not be true for the kids? It’s even hard-wired in.

Look at young toddlers. What do they love to do? Copy their parents as they do chores. That’s why that silly popping vacuum toy is so wildly popular. Maybe we should just make tiny working vacuums and let them help out for real.


Cleaning also brings a sense of accomplishment. No matter how hard the quiz or how frustrating the math lesson, you can start with a mess and end with something that looks great.

There is also a larger sense of ownership, of belonging. I wonder how it would influence young minds if they experienced that sense of connection to the space where they learn. I wonder if it would translate out to the wider spaces we all share.

What happens when instead of walking away from a mess you have made, assuming someone else will clean it up, you double back and fix the problem yourself?

Japan, I thank you. Your acts of kindness and respect have made me think. I will be looking for ways to be more mindful about this very idea.

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