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Japan’s specialist cleaners find new purpose and demand in pandemic

  • October 29, 2020
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



Trepidation soon gave way to excitement when Toru Koremura, president of a Tokyo-based cleaning company, took up the challenge of disinfecting the Diamond Princess — a cruise ship quarantined in the port of Yokohama that made global headlines earlier this year as a “petri dish” for the COVID-19 virus.


The 38-year-old cleaning specialist admits part of him was scared to delve into what was then considered one of the world’s biggest COVID-19 hotspots.


But in the end, what overcame his fear was the thought of what he and others tasked with decontaminating the vessel might be able to achieve: ridding the world of the notion that Japan was the source of the outbreak.


“With all eyes on the Diamond Princess, I remember that there was this narrative back then that Japan was somehow where the virus was originating — I saw media reports saying Japanese people were being discriminated against overseas and treated as if they were virus spreaders,” said Koremura, head of cleaning firm Riskbenefit Co., in a recent interview.


At the time, the world was also increasingly doubtful that the nation would be able to host the Summer Olympics.


“The idea that we might be able to use our cleaning skills to restore global trust in Japan’s control of the virus — and thereby help the Olympics take place as scheduled, and save a countless number of people from harassment — was enough to prod me into action,” he said. “I was all game.”


The Diamond Princess saga marked just the beginning of a surge in demand for disinfection services that has since swamped Japan’s so-called tokushu seisō (special cleaning) businesses.


Usually tasked with the cleanup of scenes such as the messy aftermaths of suicides, the squalor of derelict houses and post-disaster debris, this niche industry is now riding high amid soaring demand for disinfection of COVID-19 hotspots.


In graying Japan, biohazard cleanup has traditionally been sought at the scenes of kodokushi (solitary deaths), where people, especially older people, die alone and sometimes remain undiscovered until decomposition has already set in.


In response to demand, the number of individuals certified by the Crime Scene Special Clean Center as “crime scene cleaning specialists” has been on the rise in recent years, totaling 11,000 as of September — more than a tenfold jump from the 913 accredited in 2013, when the Hokkaido-based organization was established.


Then the pandemic came along, further fueling demand for their services.


Koremura, for one, says his firm has been inundated with hundreds of requests since around April asking for sanitization of locations where COVID-19 infections have been reported.


The same goes for Unisons, another company that performs the cleanup and deodorization of an array of trauma scenes. Requests for “coronavirus cleaning” — typically coming from corporate offices, stores and schools — continue to keep the company busy even after they peaked out around May, Ryosuke Otake, president of the Yokohama-based firm, said.


Otake says venturing into areas where COVID-19 infections occurred requires a new level of vigilance.


Wearing protective gear has always been a priority in his line of work, which often brings cleanup staff in close proximity to bodily fluids and unsanitary insulin syringes that litter rooms where the ill died. But when navigating his way through the invisible pathogen, Otake and his colleagues take their precautions up a notch by donning industrial dust masks, an extra layer of gloves and safety goggles.


In another notable change from the pre-pandemic era, any scene of suicide or lonely death now needs to be approached with the possibility in mind that the dead may have contracted the virus while still alive, forcing Otake’s team to thoroughly disinfect the premises before proceeding with the actual cleanup.


Even months into the pandemic, plunging into COVID-19 hotspots still remains a daunting task. But any fear Otake feels today is nothing compared with the dread that gripped him when he led a team of his staff into the Diamond Princess for decontamination in March.

“Back then, the novel coronavirus was thought to be much more deadly than it is today, so we felt as if we were going off to a war or something,” Otake, 25, said.


The disinfection of the vessel has been by far the most onerous task yet to face Unisons, a nascent cleanup firm that Otake co-founded with his childhood friend Kohei Mizoguchi just last year.


The duo, who grew up in Yokohama, say they felt a calling to step in upon learning the cruise ship at the center of worldwide attention was quarantined just a short distance from their neighborhood.


But their fear was so overwhelming that the two — both Buddhist — carried amulets as they sallied forth into the ship, taking what solace there was in the belief that their religion would protect them.


“Ever since I chose this line of work, I’ve always been determined to go wherever I’m needed, no matter how grueling tasks ahead might be. It’s this sense of mission — the determination to be serviceable to others — that motivates me,” Otake said.


But it can also be a thankless job. Co-founder Mizoguchi says his mother was asked by her colleagues to stop coming to work because of his experience on the ship — even though she had not been in close contact with him.


The two welcome the renewed awareness of their industry amid the pandemic. Their hope is that its lurch into the public spotlight will reawaken an interest among society in the issue of solitary deaths, and encourage many to “check in on their parents more frequently so that their dying alone can be averted,” Otake said.


But Koremura from Riskbenefit says the spike in demand caused by the pandemic hasn’t all been good for the industry. The boom, he says, has given rise to profiteering by some cleanup companies, seeking to rake in profits with shoddy services he says fall woefully short of proper disinfection.


Wataru Kawasaki, a board member of the Crime Scene Special Clean Center, says he is aware of some cases in which businesses have deceptively advertised themselves on their websites as being more expert than they actually are in relation to COVID-19 disinfection, in hope of attracting more clients.


The way Koremura sees it, the pandemic has shed renewed light on a darker side of the industry.


“Our cleanup services cater primarily to people in trouble, which is precisely what gives me a sense of purpose and mission. But at the same time, there is always this lot who seeks to exploit them and ‘fish in troubled waters,’ so to speak,” Koremura said.


In fact, ridding the industry of unscrupulous businesses has been Koremura’s career-long ambition, which was strengthened anew three years ago when he nearly succumbed to a heart attack.


The narrow escape from death gave him a perspective on his life, making him strive even harder to leave his two-year-old daughter a legacy she can be proud of in the future.


“I would hate to imagine my daughter growing up and one day being told what I do for a living, only to respond, ‘Hey, isn’t that the industry full of all these con men?,’” he said.


“Instead, I want her to think of me as someone who steered an industry that had helped a number of people in trouble.”

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