Kiyomeru: High-Minded Housework, Japanese Style

 “Life truly begins only after you have put your house in order.” – Marie Kondo

What’s worse than a sink full of dirty dishes? Or a hamper full of smelly clothes? Or a topsy-turvy living room? It offends our natural sense of order. Dirt and disorder make us (well, some of us) want to pick up a broom, or a scrub brush and get to work.  It is a distinctly human urge — to create order out of disorder, clean out of dirty. And there is a recognition of this instinct in almost every culture. But above all, the Japanese culture, the home of Kiyomeru.  This is a Japanese word referring to the purification of the physical and non-physical world.

According to Japanese tradition, the task of outward cleaning is also spit and polish for our inner world as well. It symbolizes taking care in the larger sense. Doing laundry, sweeping the floor, and polishing silverware, are all signs that we are respecting and cherishing our surroundings and belongings. Maiko Awane, assistant director of Hiroshima Prefectural Government’s Tokyo office, writing for BBC Travel, affirms that  “We Japanese are very sensitive about our reputation in others’ eyes. We don’t want others to think we are bad people who don’t have enough education or upbringing to clean things up.”

But this devotion to cleanliness and tidiness is not just about what others think. It is about the transformative power that these habits have in our own lives.

Taking our shoes off when we enter a house, caring for our belongings, and creating order where we live and work – in this we are connecting to the higher frequencies of universal energy through these mundane purification rituals. Where there is that lively energy, Kiyomeru tells us, there is no room for anger, hatred, or negativity. The simple act of mindfully hand-washing dishes, for example, can create change as we bring our inner world and outer world into harmony, one sticky fork, or one laundered bed sheet at a time.

Kiyomeru has its roots in both Buddhism and Shintoism. Shintoism teaches that evil is associated with dirtiness, and good with cleanliness. According to Japanese adherents of Shintoism, the original creator was born in the sea; worshippers at Shinto shrines still wash their mouths out with ocean water.  For many, cleanliness is next to godliness, but for the Japanese it is godliness.

Shintoism (Shinto: way of the Gods), which (next to Buddhism) is the most prominent religion in Japan is practiced by nearly 50% of the population. With this extreme adherence to cleanliness, it comes as little surprise that Japan is home to more than 15,000 onsen — a term used to describe the bathing facilities, hot springs, and inns found throughout the country

Expressing Kiyomeru in action, Osaji, the ceremony of ‘great cleaning’, is a Japanese tradition that consists of performing a deep, mindful cleaning at home, business, company, or school. The intention is to clean and eliminate things that are no longer used or that bring bad memories. But it goes deeper than that. Cleanliness is also a central feature of Buddhism, which arrived from China and Korea between the 6th and 8th Centuries. In fact, in the Zen version of Buddhism, which came to Japan from China in the 12th and 13th Centuries, daily tasks like cleaning and cooking are considered spiritual exercises, no different from meditating.

In Zen, all daily life activities, including meals and cleaning the living space, must be regarded as an opportunity to practice Buddhism. Washing off the dirt both physically and spiritually plays an important role in daily practice.  For Zen monks, cleaning is their daily duty. Visitors may see them beautifully polishing the wooden floors as though in a dance performance. In Japanese temples, monks in training are invited not only for meditation but to learn cleaning techniques as part of their spiritual training. It is considered an honor (not an annoying responsibility) to clean a part of the temple and experience the sacred pure energy that cleaning brings.

In Shintoism, purification of the inner and outer world is the basic life philosophy and there are daily and seasonal rituals to practice. Such as in the Tea Ceremony; there is the ritual cleaning of a tea bowl and all the accompanying utensils, and after tea, a meditative clean-up.  It is not just the surfaces of the teacups that come clean, but the internal surfaces of the drinkers.

Every day, every minute, we can make a conscious choice to practice “Wa Kei Sei Jyaku” – which means Harmony, Respect, Pureness, and Stillness.  A related key concept in Shinto is kegare (impurity or dirt), the opposite of purity. Examples of kegare range from death and disease to virtually anything unpleasant in daily life. Frequent purification rituals are necessary to ward off kegare.

“If an individual is afflicted by kegare, it can bring harm to society as a whole,” explains Noriaki Ikeda, assistant Shinto priest at Hiroshima’s Kanda Shrine. “So it is vital to practice cleanliness. This purifies you and helps avoid bringing calamities to society. That is why Japan is a very clean country.”

So how do we connect the dirty dishes with the divine in every day?

  1. Intention: To perform the Osaji, focus on what you strive to achieve, whether it is eliminating toxic people from your life or improving your sloppy housekeeping or fiscal habits. Once your goal is determined, begin to clean up your space (or your habits) with intention, being aware that you are cleaning to reach that goal. You can do it with your home, workplace, or business. You can also do it along with your partner, close friends, and even children.
  2. Work precedes Pleasure: To have an optimal life, Kiyomeru tells us, you must have a clean and orderly space to attract good energies and be ready the moment they arrive, so you can receive them with pleasure and joy.
  3. Awareness: It’s not just doing away with dirty socks and streaky windows, cleaning is about spiritual development and the development of well-being. We practice meditation and yoga to clear our minds and find peace. We can clear our minds and purify our energies during the day through awareness and attention.  Living consciously will deep-clean our inner world, by helping us to observe the clutter of our inner chatter and keep our outer surroundings spic and span. This practice becomes a beautiful habit.
  4. High-minded Habits: How do you see housecleaning?  As a low-grade task you wish you could hand off so you can spend time on something more intellectual or creative? This is a false dichotomy. The simple act of clearing a dinner table or using elbow grease to make the pots and pans really shine can elevate your mood and raise your consciousness. Although it may seem an inconsequential act, it is a sacred act that sets the stage for the more consequential things you plan to do.  When we are cleaning, we are respecting and cherishing our surroundings. We are connecting to the positive energies in the non-physical world, and rejecting kegare –negativity, laziness, and narrow self-interest.
  5. Gratitude:  Once you replace your belief that the act of cleaning has no worth, you automatically start feeling more gratitude for those who routinely clean our surroundings and public spaces. Just being aware that our street is clean to walk on, and cared for awakens gratitude and elevates our energy field.
  6. Meditate on the four principles of Kiyomeru the next time you pick up the feather duster or change the pillowcases. It may transform the task.

Kiyomeru shows us that cleaning is the purification of our inner and outer world. For our soul, it’s as healing as meditation and yoga. Cleaning connects us to the energy of abundance, prosperity, love, joy, and bliss.  Think of it as a sacred task!

-Frances Goulart

Photo by cottonbro (

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