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An Unlikely Path to Humility and Mindfulness

When I taught several groups of Japanese managers near Tokyo, one of the qualities I most admired was their humility and consideration of others. It felt like a refreshing change from the US cult of the individual—with its encouragement to “look out for number one” and “climb the ladder to the top”—no matter what the impact on others.

I’m not arguing for a Japanese lifestyle. Each culture has its shadows, and part of my job in Japan was gently reminding my clients of the positive aspects of standing up for themselves and speaking out. Yet I probably learned more from them than they did from me.

I learned how carefully they observed the behavior of others. I learned how they attended to small details, like arranging their shoes neatly in a lobby or pushing a chair back in when they rose from the table. I learned how they listened more than they spoke and always considered what others might be feeling.

I loved Japan. While working there, though, I never learned about the one surprising practice used by some executives as a path to mindfulness, calmness, and greater effectiveness:

Cleaning toilets.

it might be the perfect way to develop humility and attentiveness.

Famous Japanese toilet cleaners

Stories abound of executives who cleaned toilets, including:

  • Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda, believed “that the state of a toilet could reveal everything about a family or business.” He told employees that by carefully cleaning toilets, they would be practicing the care and attentiveness to detail the company needed to succeed. 
  • Konosuke Matsushita (founder of Panasonic).
  • Takeshi Kitano (film director and comedian).
  • Shuzaburo Kagiyama (founder of Yellow Hat, an auto supply and parts chain in Japan, and President of the Learning by Cleaning Association.

“I have seen thousands of people cleaning toilets; without exception, everyone becomes humble when they clean the toilet. And your humbleness is reflected in your work relationships.”
— Shuzaburo Kagiyama.

Kagiyama developed a poster with his theory of the five benefits of cleaning toilets, which he posted in company bathrooms.

1) To Become a Modest Person.”
2) “To Become Discerning” In life and eliminate wastefulness.
3) “To Develop Passion in Your Life.” Passion, he said, required using the body, including the fingers.
4) “To Develop a Sense of Appreciation.” Cleaning toilets helped one appreciate small details.
5) “To Polish Your Heart.” Polishing the toilet, he said, helped to make the heart shine.

Japanese youth, including both girls and boys, are taught to clean toilets at an early age, and from the list of executives above, I’d say that some men still practice.

Here in the United States, is it time to ditch expensive therapy and week-long meditation retreats and let this simple practice change our lives?

Alas, I’m not quite ready to commit to a daily practice of toilet cleaning even though I’m certainly not above it. Mostly, it’s a matter of time. (Excuses, excuses…)

At the meditation center

I used to assist regularly at spiritual workshops and retreats staffed by volunteers. Newbies like myself were assigned tasks that didn’t require much training, yet all the tasks were considered valuable and equally important to the work we were doing.

I loved being on the bathroom team—where I was happy to clean toilets with folks who saw the work as part of their spiritual path. Honoring the work elevated it, and the bathroom cleaning team always enjoyed the sweet afterglow that came with being of service.

Obviously, one’s state of mind is key to the endeavor. I’m afraid that too often, I practice the oh-my-god-the-guests-are-arriving-in-five-minutes school of toilet cleaning.

I promise to reform. I’d definitely prefer the Japanese version: slow, deliberate, and artful.

A cultural antidote 

If some of the self-serving moguls and narcissists who have been pulling this country down are ever brought to justice, I’d suggest that toilet cleaning be a mandatory part of their sentences. (High fines don’t seem to phase them.)

Their sentences could require toilet cleaning done meticulously with composure and respect for the job. I’d recommend a sentence of 1000 hours of this community service to start. No badmouthing of toilets or toilet cleaning would be tolerated—or cleaning hours would be extended. 

Can you imagine seeing images of formerly arrogant powermongers cleaning toilets on Facebook or “Truth Social?”


Can we learn humility?

Can virtues like humility and consideration of others be learned?

I don’t know. But the next time you are cleaning your toilet, why not slow down, see it as a spiritual activity, and imagine how the practice could be the next step to a better world.

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