Japanese Verbs for Cleaning and their Nuances

There are many verbs in Japanese which express the concept of cleaning. A few verbs that are commonly confused are 掃除する(soujisuru) vs 片づける(katadukeru) and 洗う(arau) vs 洗濯する(sentakusuru). A basic definition combined with an explanation of the nuances of each verb will put you well on your way to being able to use each one correctly.

掃除する(soujisuru) means to clean, for example, a room in a house. Whereas 片づける(katadukeru) means to tidy up, for example, a bunch of stray stationery items on a desk. 洗う(arau) means to wash, for example, a car. Whereas 洗濯する(sentakusuru) means to launder, namely clothes and linen.

Further details about the nuances of the above-mentioned verbs plus several other verbs related to cleaning are provided below. Example sentences and kanji breakdowns are also given to help you really grasp the differences and give you a clear idea of how each verb is used.

掃除する (soujisuru)

To clean 

Everyday term for cleaning rooms in a house, a bathtub, a garden, the precinct of a temple, etc. It conjures the image of performing activities like sweeping, vacuuming, wiping and dusting.

Kanji Breakdown:
掃 - sweep, brush
除 - remove, abolish, cancel

Related Words:
大掃除 (daisouji) literally means “big clean”. It is an event usually carried out at the end of the year in which people clean their whole house all in one go to have a clean start for the new year.
掃除機 (soujiki) - vacuum cleaner

Example Sentences:
I clean my room every week on Saturday. 
The monks clean the temple every morning.
The bath has gotten dirty. Clean it!

清掃する (seisousuru)

To clean expertly 

Very thoroughly cleaning from corner to corner. It often conjures the image of professional cleaners using special equipment and cleaning agents. It is a more formal word than 掃除する (soujisuru).
It can also be used when the scale of the cleaning is large, and a team of cleaners is involved. For example, cleaning an area of a town, a whole office building, a beach cleaning, etc.

Kanji Breakdown:
清 - purify, cleanse, exorcise
掃 - sweep, brush

Related Words:
清掃員 (seisouin) - janitorial staff member, municipal waste management worker that does garbage collection 
清掃機 (seisouki) - floor cleaning machine

Example Sentences:
Once every month on the first Saturday from 9 AM to 12 PM let’s clean the area around Shibuya station. 
A notice to guests who wish to have their rooms cleaned.
Since a lot of trash had washed up, we did a beach cleaning.

洗う (arau)

To wash

Everyday use term for washing dishes, a car, one’s hair or body, etc. Often conjures the image of washing by hand.

Kanji Breakdown:
洗 - wash

Example Sentences:
Please wash your hands well before eating.
I will wash my car this coming Saturday. 
I don’t like dish washing.

洗濯する (sentakusuru)

To launder

Used for laundering clothes and linens, especially in a washing machine.

Kanji Breakdown:
洗 - wash
濯 - laundry, wash, rinse

Related Words:
洗濯機 (sentakuki) - washing machine

Example Sentences:
You should wash that towel.
I wash the sheets once per week.
There was so much laundry that it took me 30 minutes to fold it all.

奇麗にする (kireinisuru)

To bring something to a clean state

Everyday use term meaning: to make something clean or tidy that is or has become dirty or messy. Technically the word 綺麗 (kirei) is a な (na) adjective which means both beautiful and clean. Adding にする(nisuru) turns it into a verb which means “to make it so”. 奇麗にする is probably the most versatile verb for cleaning in Japanese. It can cover a broad range of situations and can often replace other verbs such as 掃除する and 洗う. 

Kanji Breakdown:
綺 - beautiful
麗 - lovely, beautiful, graceful

Example Sentences:
I polished these old leather shoes and got them looking nice.
I removed all the dust and made the furniture nice and clean.
Please tell me how I can get my skin looking clean and clear.

片付ける  (katadukeru)

To tidy up, to clean up

Picking up a bunch of scattered items and arranging them neatly, putting them away or returning them to their original location. For example, if you have a bunch of things scattered on the desk, picking them up and putting them back in a pencil case or drawer. 
It can also be used to mean: to get something done, to finish off, to do away with, e.g. finish off a work task. 

Kanji Breakdown:
片 - one-sided, incomplete
付 -  adhere, attach

Example Sentences:
I cleaned up the messy entrance area.
It’s a tough task to clean up all the fallen objects, broken glass, and the like after an earthquake.
I have to finish up this leftover work or else I can’t go home.

洗浄する (senjousuru)

To cleanse, to wash out, to wash off

Wash something completely clean with a cleaning agent and water, especially when really caked in filth. It often conjures the image of washing large objects with specialized equipment like pressure washers and steam cleaners. 
It can also be used to mean: to cleanse a wound. 

Kanji Breakdown:
洗 - wash
浄 - clean, purify, cleanse

Example Sentences:
The inside of the car’s engine needs to be cleaned.
We wash the train cars by means of a specialized washing machine.
Machines that handle meat must be washed thoroughly everyday.

消毒する (shoudokusuru)

To disinfect. To sterilize. 

Using an alcohol or other chemical-based cleaning agent to clean something with contaminated surfaces.

Kanji Breakdown:
毒 - poison, virus, venom, germ
消 - extinguish, neutralize, cancel

Example Sentences:
Workers are carrying out the disinfection task.
Please disinfect your hands before entering the building.
After I fell, I disinfected the scrape on my elbow. 

Colten Dumonceau

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