Tokyo's Toilet Cleaning Social Club

By: The Associated Press
By: The Associated Press
A group of adults and children assemble at a public toilet near a station in Tokyo on a Sunday morning at 6am.

This group of bleach-sloshing good samaritans are the Benjyo Soujer, a 35-member group created on Facebook, who task themselves with scrubbing clean Tokyo's thousands of public toilets one by one. (Courtesy: The Associated Press)

A group of adults and children assemble at a public toilet near a station in Tokyo on a Sunday morning at 6am.

They're here to scrub it clean - from top to bottom.

Urinals and toilets are the first targets, then it's the turn of the walls, the sinks and the floor.

By 7:30am, they are gone, leaving behind them a gleaming public toilet, looking as good as the day it was installed.

This group of bleach-sloshing good Samaritans are the Benjyo Soujer, a 35-member group created on Facebook, who task themselves with scrubbing clean Tokyo's thousands of public toilets one by one.

The name Benjyo Soujer is a combination of the Japanese word for lavatory and a play on the Japanese word for 'cleaner' and the English word 'soldier'.

And soldiers they are.

The group gathers exclusively on Sunday mornings at 6am, even in the freezing winter.

What's more, the group's rules encourage members to use their bare hands to clean the lavatories, for one of the mottoes of the group is to 'clean thyself by cleaning cubicles'.

Masayuki Magome, the Benjyo Soujer leader, says: "Basically, excrement is something that comes out of our body, so we adults don't really think of it as dirty. So without really thinking, we clean them with our bare hands, and because the children see us doing that, they don't really think of toilets as dirty either. That is one of our philosophies."

45-year-old Magome, who runs an architecture agency, started the group in 2011, and says that for many members, this activity has lead to a sort of spirit cleansing ritual, and it is similar to one of the trainings Buddhist monks endure to find peace of heart.

The group boasts 35 members today, and each of them throws themselves full-heartedly into the lavatories.

"We do not think of this as volunteer work," says computer programmer Satoshi Oda. "We get together and do this for our own good. Or at least, I used to. Now, I come mostly because it's a lot of fun."

The children, also liberated from the common conception that toilets are something to make fun of, seem to have as much fun as the adults.

"It feels quite good!" says eight-year-old Egao Hashimoto, who like many of the other children, has come with his parents.

However, despite their sanitary hard-work the public perception of the group isn't always positive and group leader Magome is the first to admit it - even his own wife disapproves of his unusual weekend hobby.

But Magome knows this collective work has had a positive effect on the members and that for many, it is a way to blow off steam before the new week starts.

"People ask me 'how does it change you?' and frankly, most members will answer 'nothing'," says Magome. "However, we all have the will to change. So by having all 35 members hoping to change themselves and doing this continuously, I believe there is some sort of synergy in favor of change."

The total number of public toilets in Tokyo is unknown, but they are numerous, mainly located in parks and other busy areas of the city.

Personnel hired by the local administrations are usually tasked to clean them, and it is rare that citizen communities step in to volunteer because of the negative connotation toilets have.

However, Japan's Toilet Labo chairman Atsushi Kato argues that it has not always been so in Japan.

Kato's non-profit organization aims to educate people around the world about the importance of having clean, hygienic toilets and most importantly, how to use them properly.

He explains how the Japanese have culturally had a close relationship with toilets and that older generations would sometimes talk of the 'God of toilet', and how cleaning it leads to becoming a better person.

"I think the Japanese people generally consider toilets as a place that exemplifies cleanliness and safety, and should convey a welcoming feeling of hospitality to the people who enter them," Kato says, although he acknowledges that this may be lost on the younger generation.

He approved of the Benjyo Soujya's crusade, pressing that it is important that people talk more openly about lavatorial cleanliness.

"By cleaning toilets together, I think there's a sense of unity within the group members, who share the same pleasure," says Kato. "I think it's very likely that it leads to feeling like a better person and being more comfortable with oneself."

With the summer heat reaching over 30 degrees Celsius with high humidity in Japan, a condition that favors the spread of bacteria, keeping toilets clean and regularly ventilated is also a matter of collective comfort.


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