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Mike Tharp: A little osoji for the new year

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

Americans make New Year's resolutions.

Japanese do osoji.

I'd like to make a modest late-December proposal that we consider a little osoji.

Literally, it means free and clean. It refers to the year-end cleaning that Japanese do in their homes, offices, factories, shrines, schools and other places.

Not just a little feather-dusting and neatening up. Hands-and-knees, sweat-equity scrubbing, sweeping, waxing and buffing so they enter the new year ready for whatever awaits them.

More broadly, it refers to the custom of getting your affairs squared away before Dec. 31. That means paying all overdue bills, performing any obligations yet unmet and metaphorically purifying yourself.

One Web site devoted to the Little Tokyo part of L.A. says the spiritual purpose of osoji "is to drive away evil spirits and welcome ancestral spirits and the god of the incoming year."

We move, if we follow the Oriental calendar, from the Year of the Rat to the Year of the Ox. And if we perform proper osoji, we'll burst through from rodent to bovine in fine fettle.

One Japanese friend, Ryoko Onishi, remembers her father -- usually a salariman never around the house -- cleaning the kitchen fan. He wore gloves to scour the grease from its blades and also washed the glass and screens of the family home's windows. She told me that this is also called susuharai, which literally means "cleaning soot." Ryoko believes "this tradition started in shrines to clean the poles near the ceilings, since they are wood and hot air goes up." She herself cleaned her desk at school, "even under the drawer liners."

(I once spent a week at a Tokyo high school, then a week at one in Alameda, and compared and contrasted the two experiences in a long story. The recent flap over substitute custodians in Merced schools reminded me that Japanese students clean their own classrooms every day.)

Geoff Tudor, a retired Japan Air Lines executive, and my sherpa/guru in all things Japanese, remembers that in some households, the paper shoji, those white squares framed in blonde wood you see in traditional homes, would be changed during the year-end cleaning ritual. "Many years ago," Geoff relates, "some friends who lived out in the boondocks had a fire, and their house burned down just before New Year's. In a flurry of activity, the local villagers organized collections of clothes and money for them." The family started the new year afresh.

Doug Erber, now president of the Japan America Society of Southern California, was once a student of Japanese who learned both language and culture by surfing there. He stayed with a host family featuring three generations, and during his first osoji, as a guest he was exempt from the three weekends leading up to New Year's when grandparents, parents and two daughters "all worked and cleaned with the precision of an Indy 500 pit crew."

While they were so engaged, Doug lugged his surfing wetsuit into the house and began washing saltwater out of it in the family bathtub. It took nearly an hour. On the second floor, the family finally heard the water running and thought Doug was "committing the unthinkable act of using their bath -- a nearly sacrosanct part of every Japanese home -- to clean my wetsuit." He finessed it by yelling that he was cleaning the bathroom so they wouldn't have to do it, then sneaked his wetsuit out of the house in a plastic bucket.

Father Jim Colligan, a Maryknoll priest now stationed in Little Tokyo, spent 40 years in Japan as a missionary and journalist. When he was a pastor there, "parishioners would organize themselves and come in to dust off and wash down the interior of their church and surroundings." They do rectory windows, floors, pews and other furniture.

"I do recall my admiration, from early on, for the cultural proclivity of the Japanese to cleanliness," Jim told me. "That practice of cleaning things up for the New Year provided an apt theme to encourage all to clean up their heart and soul ... I believe it was effective."

James Bailey was Variety's Tokyo correspondent for many years and recalls his wife Yurika's family's devotion to osoji. "My in-laws are very traditional," James wrote me. "I do know they take the cleaning very seriously, dragooning their daughters (all married) into the task. I mean, we're not talking a brief going-over, but some serious elbow grease being expended. Wooden floors cleaned the traditional way, with arms straight ahead, pushing the dust cloth over large expanse."

The Kawaguchis' home in Yokomaha, which has been renovated over the years, was originally built about three years after the U.S. Civil War. "Yurika's mom believes they have been in that part of Kanagawa Prefecture for 18 generations," James e-mailed me, "but she's been able to trace heads of household back 'only' 15 generations -- carpetbaggers!"

I spent 10 New Years in Japan. They were the most special part of the year. It was the only time that commercial Tokyo -- with 20-plus million people a Big New York -- shut down. Well, trains and subways, which usually stopped around midnight, ran all night so people could go to shrines and temples.

Temple bells rang 108 times so we could rid ourselves of the 108 sins that plague us all.

There we would drop a coin into a lacquer box, wash our hands with a wooden ladle filled with water, light incense sticks, "bathe" our faces in their smoke, clap three times and pray -- or, in my case, make a wish as I do on my birthday.

Somehow all the days of preparation for turning the calendar prepared me better to stick to my New Year's resolutions.

So I leave that thought with you: osoji before the Rat becomes the Ox.

And many happy clean returns.

Reach Mike Tharp, executive editor, at (209) 385-2427 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com.

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