Just prior to the start of the New Year's holiday, most Japanese people embark on a serious cleaning jag (sususarai). This often includes tossing out junk that has been cluttering their homes and doing deep cleaning of various areas.
Most of my students say they will be doing this sort of cleaning but not all. Some say they can't be bothered or will just be doing more usual cursory cleaning so not everyone does this. I equate this cleaning to what is commonly done during spring cleaning in the U.S. Personally, I try to do this sort of thing on an on-going basis so I don't have to do it all at once.
During my years at my former company, I witnessed the office equivalent of this pre-holiday clean-up. On the last day of work before the holiday (which usually lasts a week for most Japanese employees), most of the Japanese employees would come to the office in casual clothes and commence with scouring the office from top to bottom. This generally included scrubbing floors, washing windows, removing and cleaning light fixtures and bulbs, and cleaning out desks of accumulated paperwork and junk.
Every year, the foreign employees worked as usual on this day because our schedule was not modified to allow us to assist. We'd have to do scheduled telephone lessons and mark homework while the Japanese toiled away happily. Of course, not everyone toiled. My boss and I amused ourselves each year by noting who managed not to do any heavy cleaning work.
One of the more senior salesmen was particularly slack and made such a chore of tidying his desk that he never touched the vacuum cleaner or scrubbed a surface. He managed to do this for every one of the 10 years he worked in the office with us. Eventually, he was transferred to another office and quit soon thereafter. I'm pretty sure his laziness at cleaning time was linked to a certain lackadaisical attitude toward his work which eventually got him fired Japan-style (that is, put into an undesirable situation which is meant to force one to quit).
The president's wife, who worked part-time at the office, carped about how inadequate the office ladies were at cleaning the tiny office kitchen or how lazy they were. She felt they should scrub the floor under all the furniture and scrub off the front of every cabinet. When they refused to do it, she did it herself so she deserves credit for getting down and dirty as she expected others to do.
The idiosyncratic and mercurial fellow who owned the company and acted as president sold us off after my first 10 years at the company and a cleaning company handled the office cleaning when new ownership took over. Apparently, only small, cheap companies force their employees to do this clean-up and most places have outside help do the year-end scrub-down.
I'm sure that the Japanese workers were happy to not have to do the end of each year janitorial duties but there was a camaraderie in it all that was likely lost. During this last day, people not only dressed informally but also could break out of their usual roles in the office and they tended to be more jovial and let their hair down a bit. Interestingly, their zealousness for cleaning always mirrored their general work ethic.
The company also bought their lunch and had it delivered (though the foreign employees were not included in this) and there was a little "party" of sorts at the end where snacks were served and the beer from the winter gifts was consumed.
Quite often, I was the last one to leave on such days because the Japanese workers could leave when the cleaning was done and my schedule was full and finished at a later time or I would work the next day (a Saturday) alone. I always had a strong sense of being abandoned in a sterile room which wasn't going to be touched for some time.
After the party, a traditional New Year's ornament (shimenawa - Roy has a nice picture of one here on his blog) was hung on the front door and everyone headed off for vacation. Seeing these decorations on closed shops in my neighborhood on New Year's day always fills me with a strong sense of completion and an odd sense of emptiness. I will always associate these decorations with hard work that has been completed, a fresh and clean area prepared, and everyone deserting the premises because of my years of witnessing the yearly cleaning at my office.