The concept of mottainai is one of the main reasons why many Japanese do not leave a grain of rice in their bowl when they eat. But this idea so deeply rooted in their culture goes far beyond respecting the resources we have and not wasting them. This principle goes beyond zero waste to invite us to use things with a feeling of respect and gratitude. It also invites us to reflect on the way we use or waste our time and energy.
One kimono, a thousand lives
Mottainai is not just a word, it is a way of thinking and acting deeply rooted in Japanese society, with roots dating back to Buddhism and Shintoism. In fact, its origin is very ancient, although it was not always used as we know it today.
The word itself dates back to the 13th century. At that time it was used to indicate a problem, damage or something inappropriate. That negative imprint has survived, but its meaning has changed.
To understand its evolution we must go back to the Edo period of the samurái when people had to wear their kimonos for 10 or 20 years, so they were forced to mend them over and over again.
When they finally couldn’t carry them anymore, they gave them a second life by turning them into something useful that they could continue using at home. And when they were no longer useful even as cleaning rags, they were used to light the fire for cooking. Finally, not even the ashes were wasted because they were used to wash the dishes.
The economic hardships that the Japanese population went through throughout its history and the long shadow of World War II, which accentuated the lack of resources, caused the spirit of mottainai to take root and extend to all spheres of life.
Even today, old kimonos continue to have a thousand lives as many people turn them into precious accessories, from handbags to cloth sandals called nuno zori. Therefore, it should not surprise us that in cities like Kamikatsu, up to 45 categories of garbage are collected in order to properly recycle them.
The Japanese care about using things consciously. They value what they have and try to take care of their possessions, as well as not waste anything. But that mentality doesn’t just apply to products, it also applies to life.
What is the meaning of the word mottainai?
When someone exclaims “mottainai!” (勿体無い) is saying, “what a waste!” It is generally an expression used to complain because someone throws away food, has not used a product that they have bought, has thrown away something that could still be used or has not made good use of a space.
Mottai (もったい・勿体) refers to the intrinsic value of a material object and nai (ない・無い) indicates absence or lack. Buddhists used to use this word to express regret over the waste or misuse of something of great value or sacred nature.
In fact, the desire to show respect for things arises from the Buddhist belief that everything has an essence and is interconnected, so that each of our actions has consequences. However, that does not mean developing an unhealthy attachment to possessions, understood as a reluctance to part with things we do not need.
Rather, it is about not throwing away what can continue to be useful, whether to ourselves converted into another object or to other people in its original state. By treating it with respect, the Japanese honor the history of that object. And when the time comes to eliminate it, they give it a dignified and responsible “farewell.”
Do you take advantage or waste your life?
There is a more psychological interpretation of the concept of mottainai, in which case it is translated as “repentance for wasting.” Therefore, it is a principle that not only refers to properties, but also to more abstract concepts, such as time or a talent, personal energy, an opportunity or even our own life.
And, in a general sense, we can all adopt the mottainai spirit to learn to respect, appreciate and take advantage of the resources we have in our daily lives, also including our abilities, virtues and gifts.
The mottainai encourages us to recognize and respect our essence. It invites us to recognize our intrinsic value by looking inside ourselves to discover the psychological resources we have, so that we can use them in the most intelligent way possible.
This Japanese concept is also an invitation to take advantage of our lives. To find meaning or ikigai, that which will allow us to do what we were born to do, what we are passionate about and what we shine at.
The mottainai is, ultimately, a call to be more aware of our decisions, experience gratitude for what we have and what we are, and commit to ourselves by building a meaningful life that is worth until the last minute.
Sirola, N. et. Al. (2019) Mottainai! — A Practice Theoretical Analysis of Japanese Consumers’ Food Waste Reduction. Sustainability; 11(23): 6645.
Maruko, E. (2014) «Affluence of the Heart»: Wastefulness and the Search for Meaning in Millennial Japan. The Journal of Asian Studies; 73(1): 165-186.