The Rugby World Cup last October may have had the wrong result for most of us, but it created an extremely positive impression around the world of its host country Japan. A recurring reflection of friends of mine fortunate enough to attend World Cup matches was just how clean the country was. Indeed, this is one of the things I recall most vividly from the School language trip to Japan, which I joined over 15 years ago… alongside being pushed into a commuter train by an immaculately-dressed man with white gloves. Cleanliness has been very much on my mind as we have advised boys about the best way to keep Coronavirus at bay. We have shown them videos on the proper way to wash one’s hands, we have installed anti-bacterial gel at the entrance to the lunch hall, and we have banned hand-shaking. However, it struck me that this advice would never have been necessary in Japan: it is engrained into the national psyche. So where have we gone wrong?
When I spent two weeks in Japan, I was struck by how cleanliness is central to so many daily routines. We are all probably aware of the strict rules about leaving outdoor shoes at the front door: each Japanese house has slippers lined up at the entrance, including several pairs for potential visitors. I was accompanying 30 British exchange students and we spent a few days in Urawa High School in the Northern suburbs of Tokyo. Once again, outdoor shoes were locked away upon arrival and indoor trainers put on. However, what surprised me was that students were all expected to get involved in cleaning the school as the final activity of the School day. An elaborate rota detailed duties that appeared to change daily. Some would fetch buckets and mops for the corridor and stairwells, others would focus on the classroom, and some were given the unenviable task of cleaning the toilets. I can’t say that the students looked exactly enthusiastic at the prospect of these tasks, but it was clear that they had got used to the expectation.
How, I wonder, would our boys respond to this notion? I must admit that one area in which I have not particularly succeeded as a parent is in getting my children to help with household cleaning. However, what is clear in Japan is that young people understand the importance of cleanliness. I am sure that much of this is historical: given the country’s warm and humid climate, food goes off quickly and bacteria flourish unless checked. Good hygiene and good health have gone hand in hand for generations. Something that is misunderstood in Japanese (and Chinese) culture is the wearing of surgical masks. Some have interpreted this as paranoia about disease. The reality could not be more different: this trend is about being considerate towards others. Japanese and Chinese people wear masks when they have a cold to avoid infecting others. Perhaps we are too nonchalant about the health risks given our generally benign climate (recent storms and flooding notwithstanding)? We simply do not perceive the same level of threat from our environment as those from warmer climes.
Of course, things have changed dramatically in the last few weeks as an epidemic awaits. I can imagine that the handwashing that we as a School have been constantly reminding boys about will persist in the imagination as Coronavirus takes its toll. Boys are naturally worried about what might lie ahead. We have focused on what they can control. We have stressed that they are less likely to suffer personally from the disease, but that they pose a risk to older, less healthy family members as potential carriers. If they wash their hands thoroughly with soap before eating and after abluting, if they cough or sneeze into a handkerchief or the crook of their arm rather than releasing their germs to the nation, if they are considerate in keeping away from others when feeling under the weather, then they will be keeping their loved ones safe. In which case, some good may have come from the worrying situation in which we find ourselves.