The World Cup games in Brazil have finished, but the memories have yet to fade from the world's consciousness. It's not only the stories of stellar plays and daring goal-shots that stick in people's minds, but also the stories of the fans and their experiences in Brazil. There were the fans vying for the craziest costume, there were the "World Cup Problems" hashtags that gave guests a chance-justified or not-to rant and rave, there was the Belgian fan briefly recruited as a model by L'Oreal when she was spotted on the jumbo video screen. One of the most positive memories, though, was the buzz surrounding the behavior of Japanese fans in the stadiums of Brazil.
After Japan's Samurai Blue team's loss to Côte d'Ivoire, draw with Greece, and loss to Colombia, many fans filled the Twitter-sphere not with celebrations of victory or complaints of defeat, but with laudatory Tweets about the Japanese fans cleaning up their sections of the Pernambuco Arena in Recife, Arena das Dunas in Natal, and Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, Brazil. Tweeters posted photos with comments of praise and downright amazement that Japanese fans walked through the bleachers picking up wrappers, water bottles, and whatever else was left behind, using the same blue garbage bags they had inflated like balloons during the games.
NPR journalist Melissa Block caught up with one of the Japanese fans, Kei Kawai, after the game against Côte d'Ivoire and asked him about the Japanese side of the story. His answers treated the whole episode of the tidying fans as rather natural and un-extraordinary. "I think we have started this tradition," says Kawai, "A few games ago or a few World Cups ago. We try to do little bit of cleanup to show respect to the host country and just show off how clean things are in Japan. And we like to make it so here, too."
A very pertinent point: How clean things are in Japan. Visitors to Japan often notice the general cleanliness of the cities before they notice anything about the culture or traditions. Even in big cities, the streets are very clean and trash is kept under control. Litter is uncannily rare.
In his interview, Kei Kawai touched on the role of school and upbringing in producing such tidy citizens, which is true. In a Japanese home, family members and honored guests alike will remove their shoes at the door, both as a sign of respect and as a practical attempt to keep dirt and grime out of the house. Children are raised learning to keep their homes neat and sanitary.
This cleanliness training increases when Japanese children reach school age and begin their education. After school each day, students are responsible for cleaning their own classrooms, so by the time children graduate high school, they have become incredibly efficient at cleaning desks, wiping chalk boards, and sweeping floors.
This cleaning tradition doesn't end at graduation, as many companies expect employees to lend a hand for cleaning duties in the office. Workers in a variety of companies are expected to share in tasks such as vacuuming, disposing of trash, or even cleaning the restrooms. This phenomenon is so common, it's hardly seen as worthy of comment.
These cultural norms ensure that Japanese people are, as a group, very conscientious about cleaning up after themselves. However, it helps there are not mountains of garbage to deal with in the first place. Other cultural norms are in place that ensure public cleanup tasks are manageable from the beginning.
Visitors to Japan may notice very few Japanese people walk and eat or drink at the same time. It is a cultural norm that eating and drinking are done sitting down in the home or a restaurant. Unless a street festival is going on and vendors are selling food on the sidewalks, it's considered rude to eat or drink while walking in public. Even during festivals, foreign visitors will see Japanese people crouching or sitting on curbs to eat, naturally preferring to sit.
In the United States, we think nothing of a passersby on the sidewalk carrying a carry-out cup in one hand and a pastry in the other. In Japan, that sight would be rare. You can certainly order a drink "to go," but there's a good chance the seller will place your cup in a bag fitted with a cardboard cup-holder, so you can carry it to your destination and enjoy it there. Also, vending machines in public places always stand next to a recycling bin, because the expectation is buyers will finish their drink immediately, then dispose of the can before continuing on. If you do catch a Japanese person carrying a drink, it will most likely be a capped plastic bottle tucked away inside a purse or briefcase.
So, in view of these cultural norms, the World Cup clean-up that garnered international attention on the Twitter-sphere-then appeared on mainstream news outlets worldwide-is a very natural extension of Japanese behavior and lifestyle. Considering how tidy Japanese people are in their own country and their own homes, it would be more surprising if Japanese World Cup fans left their litter behind than if they cleared it away and disposed of it properly.
When the Olympic Games come once more to Tokyo in 2020, even more of the international community will have a chance to appreciate the cleanliness of the Japanese in their own element. Will there be "Olympic Problems" hashtags in 2020? Anything is possible, but perhaps the hashtag to watch for in Tokyo will, instead, be #ItsSoClean!