Every so often, by means of a small noticeboard that passes around the houses in our neighbourhood, we are informed that we must get up at an unseemly hour on a Sunday morning and go and clean a local park. It is a voluntary activity; the kind of voluntary activity that sees you becoming the subject of unkind neighbourly gossip if you don’t attend. Thus it was that at 7:55 this morning I found myself in possession of a mild hangover and a large broom. I wandered across the road to do a bit of sweeping.
It wasn’t hard work. Not really. The park was perfectly clean already and our only duty, indeed the only thing we could actually find to do at all was to sweep up the fallen leaves, bag them and stick them over at the rubbish collection point. This took about fifteen minutes. But then the Japanese guilt kicked in and nobody wanted to be the first to say, ‘Right, that’s me done. I’m off back to bed.’ This year’s head of the community was still pointlessly pushing a broom over a leafless gravelly surface and it seemed everybody thought they would look a bit lazy if they left so soon. I was amongst them. I recognised the futility of continuing to sweep. I saw no benefit in moving small stones and dust in one direction and then back again, but I also felt I might be labelled the lazy foreigner if I was the first to leave. So we carried on for fifteen minutes more. We swept and shared glances, wondering who would be the first to crack. Finally, the head of the community gave one last mighty sweep, mopped his brow and said, ‘OK. That seems to be it.’
We thanked each other for our efforts and trundled home. I walked with old Mr. Yamamoto and Mrs. Ikeda. ‘Mr. Suzuki must be very hardworking,’ said Mr. Yamamoto. ‘Yes,’ agreed Mrs. Ikeda. ’He always seems too busy to come to cleaning events.’