Huh? Japanese Kids Clean their Classrooms?!?

By Donald Ash | Teach in Japan Article Hub

Jin Cleaning

One of the things that made my jaw drop as a first-time teacher in a Japanese public school (in a good way) was seeing teachers and students, nearly every single school day, scrubbing, wiping and cleaning their classrooms…their school…together.

Yes, there is a staff member who helps to take care of some of the odds and ends that don’t get taken care of (like the emptying the trash in the the copy room, or keeping the staff kitchen clean), but by and large EVERYONE is responsible for helping to keep the school clean. Being a member of that staff meant that I was responsible, too.


Observing my first “osouji jikan” お掃除時間 or “cleaning time” session was in a word “mind-blowing.” I was thinking that A) I had bumped my head and was dreaming. Surely I’d wake up back in class and have to break up the two brawling kids, one of whom threw the stray punch that knocked me out. Or B) I must’ve stumbled through that hole in my closet again and I was in some Japanese Narnia.

How on earth do you get a classroom full of kids to clean happily, to clean willingly??? Even the most rambunctious of the kids were doing it! What?!? I just can see some of my U.S. middle school kids’ faces now if I gave them all washcloths and brooms.

“Hey, let’s clean up the classroom together!”

I wonder how much teeth sucking there’d be? How many of the bad kids would hurl those washcloths at my face? How hard would I hurl them back before losing my job…er I mean…I wonder how much verbal reprimanding I’d do?

Being the product of the Georgia Public School System, I was required to do very little, if any, cleaning around my school. Unless I was part of a school club whose duty was to help out with that kind of thing, we didn’t have to worry about it. The mentality is “Let the janitors handle it.”

Seeing the Japanese kids smiling and cleaning made me think of my school days and my teaching days back home. I felt like I was, like my kids were, just a wee bit spoiled.


One thing I really thought was cool was seeing kids performing this special style of locomotive cleaning:

First, students would kneel and put both hands on a wet cloth (or zoukin) in front of them, elbow locked in position. Then they would then raise their rear-ends in the air so their torsos would make a 35-45 degree angle with the floor. After that, they push their rear-ends up in the air, and start running on their toes. It looked like exercise and cleaning rolled up into one:

How to Do Zoukin Gake

Smooth Floor Surface + Wet cloth + Running feet = Elementary School Student, Cleaning Locomotives

The first time I saw hallways full of students cleaning like this, I just paused in awe for a few minutes. It was so unique! I’ve never seen anyone in America clean a floor this way or anywhere else for that matter. A mop and bucket maybe, but the human locomotive cleaning thing? No way.

Where Had I Seen This Before?

For some odd reason, though, it felt familiar. But where had I seen it??

AH! I’VE GOT IT! The first time I ever saw a “person” cleaning like this was when I was watching my favorite anime, Samurai Champloo. There was an episode (Episode 10 to be exact) where a monk gives the three, main, wandering characters (Fuu, Jin & Mugen) food and shelter in exchange for some good, old-fashioned hard work.

Jin cleans the halls of the temple using the zoukin gake. I thought it looked pretty cool on the cartoon, but I didn’t think people actually cleaned that way…until I saw it for myself that is.

After asking two of my students if this cleaning method had a name, I learned that it does indeed: ZOUKIN GAKE ぞうきんがけ.

After seeing it I tried it. Let’s just say I wasn’t nearly as good at it as my super kids were, but I have to admit I enjoyed being down there, experiencing what they experience every day.

Wanna add a little Japanese culture to your cleaning? The next time your kitchen floor needs a good mopping, try out the zoukin gake pose instead of using the mop. If your have kids with loads of energy, you owe it to yourself to try this at least once. Younger Japanese kids seem to have a lot of fun with it.

Who knows? It might turn into a fun cleaning game for your kids to try: Completed Chores + Happy Kids = Parental Bliss.


Why do you think Japanese elementary and middle schoolers (not sure about high school…never taught there) are willing to get out there and clean/help out at their schools while it’s such a rarity in many of the U.S. public schools? Do you think it could ever happen at your school? Super curious to hear your thoughts whether you’re a teacher or not!

The comments section is all yours, please use as much of it as you like!


About the Author

Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.

  • Dochimichi1 says:

    Love the diagram provided :))

  • Waltlanta says:

    I think it’s just great that the kids have to help clean up. I wish we had something similar here in the states.

  • Nanami says:

    XD… there is no way I will be able to do that, but I wish I had the energy to do my chores like that!

  • Doug Scholl says:

    As a big anime fan, I have always wondered how common this was in modern japan. I was somewhat expecting it to be an old custom used in temples and the like with their old thick wooden floors that you wouldn’t want to damage with lots of water and heavy cleansers. I don’t know how my eldest daughter has gotten to seven without being made to do this. But it’s happening this weekend for sure

  • Kelly says:

    This is so fascinating!! I am visiting Japan in April with my family. This would be a wonderful thing for kids from America to experience. Do school in Japan allow for little visits such as this?

  • Rachel says:

    What a great way to teach responsibility! I think young children in UK schools might happily do this. But perhaps parents wouldn’t be supportive. Cleaning is still considered a task for someone else.

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