Why cleanliness is a vital human right

Tags: Op-ed
Why cleanliness is a vital human right
Bloomberg
STANDING TALL: Tokyo Gate Bridge in Tokyo, Japan. One should never forget that after World War II, the Japanese reconstructed their country within two decades to become the second biggest economy in the world
I have spent the past few months in India witnessing the change in government. The expectations in India and in the whole of Asia are high that the new government, with its decisive mandate, will open a new chapter in the great history of the Indian Union. Particularly looking at the political stalemate in China, it is impressive to see how well-ordered and smooth the transition of power in the world’s largest democracy has been. This transfer is rightfully seen with great pride by Indian citizens who may be living in modest material conditions, but have proven again and again that they are politically very savvy.

Living and working in Japan I have noted with great interest that the new Indian government will give much more attention to eastern Asia than the preceding administration. This is a very welcome development as there exists a huge potential for economic and geo-political cooperation between India and east Asia. After all, India is an Asian power and its natural interests must lay in Asia, much more than in Europe or in the US. The big future markets for Indian goods and Indian services will open in Asia and not in the stagnating economies of the industrial countries of the west.

What struck me in particular was the emphasis of prime minister Narendra Modi on the efficiency, punctuality and cleanliness of bureaucracy. Normally politicians focus on the big picture and neglect the nitty-gritty of daily life which is of most interest to the common man. Looking at the condition most Indians have to live in, cleanliness must certainly rank amongst the major aspirations as well as rights and duties of the people.

When in the early 15th century, the first Europeans landed in Japan, they noted the extraordinary politeness, cleanliness and honesty of the native population. They praised exactly the same virtues we admire in today’s Japan. Every time I travel to Europe or to the US, I notice the utter neglect of public spaces. How dirty particularly their inner cities are. It is with great relief that I return to the spotless public services in Japan. Millions of passengers pass every day through the major railway stations in Tokyo. With its surrounding Kanto area, greater Tokyo has a bigger population than Mumbai. If you pass in the evening through Shinjuku Station, which handles more than three million commuters each day, you would not notice a single paper on the floor. Public facilities are that spotless.

Of course people will argue that Tokyo does not have the slums and the mass poverty that exists in Mumbai and other big cities in India. First of all, when looking at the glitzy skylines of today’s Tokyo, one should never forget that after World War II, the whole city was in ruins. Pictures of 1945 show hardly a building standing. For many years after the surrender, the majority of Tokyoites had to live in modest shacks. Then came one of the most remarkable reconstruction efforts in human history and with no natural resources of their own, the Japanese reconstructed their country within two decades to become the second biggest economy in the world and one of the most technologically advanced nations.

When looking at the Japanese success story, the focus is all too often on industrial and infrastructural development. It is often overlooked that one of the key features of the Japanese way of progress is the emphasis on innovation not only in technology, but also in services. Not for nothing is Japan the most impressive service paradise in the world. Both the extraordinary quality of services and virtues such as cleanliness, politeness and honesty are the result of one specific trait of the Japanese character which we would describe as empathy. From childhood, from the first day in kindergarten, Japanese are trained to take into consideration the interests and rights of other people. You are trained to always think of how your behaviour affects the others. The essence of the message is: if you make use of a common good, return it in the same state as you have found it. If in the school break, you play with a toy, you return it in the same immaculate condition you had gotten it; if you use a public facility, you leave it in the same spotless cleanliness you found it.

One other key aspect of civilisation in Japan is the high regard given to the people who do the cleaning. They are respected and everyone is concerned to make their tasks as easy as possible in not dirtying or damaging public installations. Unlike in Europe, where the poorest of the immigrants tend to do the meanest jobs, in Japan it is Japanese who keep the country clean. Therefore, it may sound strange, but we, after the experience in Japan, are firmly convinced that cleanliness should be a human right and, as with all rights, it must be linked to duties, too. In fact, come to think of it, it was the greatest of all modern Indians, Mahatma Gandhi, who in his deeds and in his way of life provided the highest importance to cleanliness.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)

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