5 min read

Let’s clean! Kenya Hara, art director of the Muji brand, has taken a look at all possible forms of cleaning and compiled what is needed for it. A little lesson about man and nature – very Japanese and very inspiring.

Review by Thomas Wagner

Sweeping 399 steps from top to bottom ©Taiki Fukao

A stooped man in a blue outfit carefully sweeps a moss garden with a short brushwood broom and dustpan so as not to damage the green upholstery. Others sweep in front of a shop, vacuum the carpet in a theatre or hose down entire ships. There is dust to sweep along tatami mats on the veranda or tidy up after pruning trees in the garden. Even on the Great Wall of China, sweeping is the order of the day – a Sisyphean task like basically all cleaning and mopping. If sweeping and mopping, dusting and scrubbing, scrubbing, beating and washing, shampooing or hosing, smoothing or fairing, mowing, trimming, scraping and rubbing, stripping and picking up are not done regularly, dirt and dust inevitably gain the upper hand. “If you drown it well in water / it seems to have disappeared / But once the flood has dried up / dust is invented” – the songwriter Christof Stählin aptly put it. Cleaning is something that everyone knows – unless someone does it for them. It is probably one of the most original cultural techniques of all.

Is the Human Nature Slumbering here?

Kenya Hara, born in 1958, graphic designer, curator and art director of the Muji brand since 2002, is considered one of Japan’s most influential designers. In 2020, he published a book in Japan (initially for Muji) entitled “Cleaning”, which is devoted in an original way to the various facets of cleaning, tidying and clearing up. Now the handy volume has been published in a multilingual edition by Lars Müller Publishers. The (often daily) effort to ensure cleanliness and keep things tidy is documented through photographs taken by Yoshihiko Ueda and Taiki Fukao in 2019, before the COVID pandemic, in various places around the globe – guided by the question “whether the essence of humanity might lie dormant in our everyday and ordinary cleaning tasks that exist across cultures and civilisations”.

From Brushwood Brooms to Vacuum Robots

Much of what the photographers have collected with the camera owes much to experiences and traditions going back a long way. Loosely sorted into categories of cleaning, one or the other also flirts with the category of “non-intentional design”, which Uta Brandes and Michael Erlhoff invented for the unusual use of seemingly unambiguous things. Be that as it may, it is about tools (from brushwood brooms to snow shovels, from water jets to vacuum robots) and their use, about the situations in which they are used and about a culture of cleaning, caring and tidying that has developed over millennia. Things that have a direct connection to the world, tools with the help of which nature and civilisation are intervened in everywhere and day after day – shaping, destroying, caring for and preserving.

A truck with rotating brooms sweeping fallen leaves to the side ©Taiki Fukao
Peeling stickers from a road sign ©Taiki Fukao

Accepting and Moderately Taming Nature

“Environments that we humans have created as a distinction from nature,” reads a short text at the end of the book, “we call ‘man-made’. Everything artificial, man-made, is supposed to be comfortable. But when the materials used for it interfere too much with nature or even push it back, as with plastic and cement, people begin to long for nature. If nature is left to its own devices, however, dust and leaves accumulate and plants take over. So it came about that historically people accepted nature to a certain extent while moderately taming it.”

How the Breaking Waves wash the Sandy Beach

The fact that the furore of cleaning must not overwhelm nature reveals how japanese the perspective on cleaning is: “Therefore, when designing a home or a garden, it seems uncultivated and tasteless if the man-made dominates. We must allow nature to rule appropriately, i.e. neither sweep away the leaves too neatly nor trim the greenery too much. Just as on the seashore where the crashing waves wash the sandy beach, the answer to the mystery of creating order may be hidden in places where nature and man rub up against each other in our quest for moderate comfort.” Many western cleaning devils should take note of this, for the sake of more sustainability: allow nature a proper reign.

It should not be forgotten that order and cleanliness are particularly important in Japanese culture. Those who do not throw away rubbish, clean and tidy up consciously do not want to be a burden on others – and thus perform a service to the community. Sidewalks and platforms are meticulously cleaned. Education in cleanliness begins at school, where pupils have to clean corridors, classrooms and toilets themselves. And during the “Ōsōji”, the major cleaning (which dates back to the Edo period (1603 – 1868), when houses were heated by charcoal stoves and thus very dirty), everything is cleaned at the end of the year to be prepared for the visit of the Shintō god Toshigami, who, as the New Year god, might pay a visit to every house at the beginning of the new year.

The crew polishes the deck of the ship with coconut cross sections ©Taiki Fukao

Listening to the Inner Rhythm

In short: cleaning is about the whole. It is about all the countless and constantly recurring challenges that a man-made existence faces in and vis-à-vis nature, how these are shaped and how one copes with them. Because cleaning and keeping clean are inextricably linked to certain actions, they have given rise to rituals that give support to those who perform them: “Regardless,” one reads, “of how technology advances in the future, human beings are living beings who aspire to a rhythm of life that resonates in the depths of their soul. If we listen to this natural inner rhythm, we can move forward.” If everywhere, that much can be said, cleaning was done considerately, mindfully, meditatively and without rushing – it would be happiness.

Kenya Hara (ed.)


With photographs by Yoshihiko Ueda, Taiki Fukao

With contributions by Kenya Hara, Takuya Seki, Mariko Hara

Design: Kenya Hara, Takuya Seki

11,8 mal 16 cm,

504 pages, 374 illustrations


Lars Müller Publishers, Zürich 2023

ISBN 978-3-03778-732-8, English

30,00 Euro

More on ndion

More reviews.

Share this page on social media:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email