“Mottainai” was taken up by Kenyan environmental political activist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangarĩ Muta Maathai as a term that relates to the spirit of her Green Belt Movement.

The expression Mottainai もったいない is used in a variety of contexts in Japanese but it always means one thing: “Such a pitty it isn’t used to its full potential.” It’s often said with a sigh.

In the environmental context, Mottainai refers to the 3 R’s + 1: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle  + Respect (as in respect for mother nature and the natural resources it provides us).

As a Japanese citizine, I am proud that the expression conforms perfectly with the green challenge humanity faces in our modern-day world, but at the same time, I regret that I have to say that Japan can be one of the least environmentally-friendly minded among developed countries.

If we look at the 2018 EPI (Environment Performance Index) Results, sure, Japan is doing best among Asian countries, but it’s doing a sluggish job compared to its First-World peers, ranking at 20th place. I can see the reason for this flop everyday, living here in Japan. It’s precisely the lack of the spirit of Mottainai when it comes to business that hinders Japan’s performance in environmental areas (like any other country that does not thrive with EPI).

The spirit of Mottainai does exist in Japanese people, but when we investigate the roots of the philosophy, we can understand why it hasn’t quite led to fulfilling Japan’s bit of social responsibility. Let us dive into the story of Mottainai and find out about its origin, history and now.

1. The origin of Mottainai is in Japanese Buddhism

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It’s commonly said that Mottainai is a word derived from one of the beliefs of Buddhism, but it’s a little risky to assert so. While Mottainai is indeed a Japanese word, the Buddhism that’s believed in Japan is quite different from the original Buddhism that was given birth by Siddhārtha Gautama in the 5th century BCE.

Like a telephone game, by the time Buddhism got to Japan around a 1,000 years later, it had gone through Pakistan, China and Korea, and Buddhist thought was modified and adapted to local needs and conveniences multiple times. Still now, many Japanese people get Buddhism and Shintoism confused and consider Buddha as some sort of god, while in original Buddhism, there is no god. Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism are two different entities.

So to be technically safe and accurate, I’d like to say that Mottainai is a word derived from one of the beliefs of Japanese Buddhism.

So what is the meaning of Mottainai もったいない in Japanese-Buddhism? When written in Chinese characters, Mottainai becomes 勿体無い. We break this phrase into two: 勿体 and 無い.

  • 勿体 roughly means “its genuine form” in Japanese Buddhist terms
  • 無い means “is not there”

Put those together and you have 勿体無い = It’s not as it’s supposed to be.

So when you throw away a sandwich that you couldn’t finish, it’s Mottainai 勿体無い because you’re letting a perfectly good sandwich die without letting it live up to it’s full potential: being eaten up. Pitty for the sandwich. Mottainai.

Considering the fact that Buddhist monks in India back in the time of Buddha wore clothes that were going to be thrown away or cloths that clothed dead bodies, and only ate food that was given out as alms, the spirit of Mottainai is not unique to Japan. Only the word is.

2. Mottainai latched onto Japanese people due to Shinto beliefs

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After its introduction via Buddhism, the word and spirit of Mottainai is likely to have latched onto Japanese people partly due to their traditional Shinto beliefs.

In Shintoism, there is a god in everything – each tree, river, deer and mice carry a god inside. Nowadays, this belief is not taken very seriously by most people – it’s more like a source of stories to base anime, games or fairy tales off of. Like Greek mythology in the West.

When you keep using anything for a long time, for example a sword, axe, sandles or comb, it was believed that godly powers were gifted upon them (stuff elevated to a godly state were called Tsukumogami 付喪神). In Japanese myths and fairy tales, these objects could even start having thoughts and consciousness of their own.

It’s impossible to tell if people’s valuing their belongings came first or the belief came first (probably both), but it’s true that Japanese people tend to hesitate partly due to superstition when they need to decide whether or not to throw something away.

3. Mottainai latched onto Japanese people due to economic reasons

Now here’s a not-so-beautiful story about how the spirit of Mottainai came to be through Japanese history.

Until Japan was united into one for the first time under the Tokugawa regime (1603 – 1868), there was war everywhere. So naturally, in Japan’s 4-layer social hierarchy, Samurais were at the top, followed by farmers, then craftsmen, and merchants at the bottom.

However, Japan enjoyed over 200 years of peace during the Tokugawa regime and merchants gained economic power and social influence steadily. The Samurais who remained ignorant to investment were soon no longer practically in power, and merchants became the influencers of the Japanese economy. Merchants helped to promote consumption and people’s living standards in the cities.

Meanwhile, Samurais were the landlords of Japan and they ruled over farmlands and farmers. Samurais collected harvested rice as tax from farmers and that’s how they made a living (they sold rice to gain money). The trend of rising living standards was bad news for the Samurais because if their farmers exchanged rice for money to buy stuff, that meant less rice tax revenue.

So the Samurais, failing to learn how to thrive financially in the new peaceful age, could only come up with the idea of spending less. They restricted or banned any form of luxury among farmers and encouraged the humble lifestyle. To be a rolemodel of this lifestyle, Samurais themselves refrained from becoming consumers by conserving food and belongings.

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Through propaganda, the Samurai’s humble way of life came to be recognized as a Japanese virtue, and led to an even stronger establishment of the Mottainai spirit among Japanese people.

4. The erosion of the spirit of Mottainai

Japan’s participation and loss in World War II forced its people to conserve resources like any other country that got involved in warfare. Reducing, reusing and recycling were of course praised.

However as the economy grew rapidly in post-war Japan, living standards improved drastically, and Japan entered its bubble economy era from around 1986. Back then, almost everyone had money in excess. They spent money like there’s no tomorrow buying new clothes, cars, houses and luxuries, and not surprisingly, the idea of conserving resources seemed to have been forgotten.

The amount of national waste grew significantly during the bubble economy, as shown in the graph below.

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This, I would say, is a natural course of events during the development of a country, which means the existence of the word Mottainai in the Japanese vocabulary was powerless against the allures of consumption.

If you come to live in Japan for a few weeks, you may be amazed at just how much paper and plastic is overused. Excessive wrapping is a chronic social problem in a culture that generally regards cleanliness and visual presentation as high priorities. It doesn’t only happen at posh clothing stores, but also at stores for daily use.

  • The vast majority of even the cheapest candy treats are individually wrapped with plastic
  • Plastic shopping bags are provided at most grocery and convenience stores for free (as of 2018)
  • Shoppers typically take free, small plastic bags to separately shelter fresh vegetables, meat and fish so that they don’t touch other groceries like detergents or razors directly in their shopping bags

So a day’s worth of shopping and the amount of plastic bags consumed will look like this:

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Mottainai doesn’t seem to be a thing when it comes to overusing plastic bags in Japan, but it’s not just the valuation of the importance of sanitation that drives the Japanese society to produce so much plastic waste.

Japan didn’t sign the G7 ocean plastics charter in 2018 (a pledge to reduce single-use plastics and promote use of recycled plastics) reportedly because convenience store companies resisted strongly, but the government wasn’t just bending to capitalism in deciding not to sign.

There is a complicated mix of cultural reasons:

  • Japanese people generally don’t feel comfortable disclosing their thoughts or private life to strangers. Standing out in the crowd is often frowned upon and therefore, especially traditional-minded people avoid any risk of doing just that.
  • So in Japan, bookstores wrap purchased books with paper covers to hide the book cover, so that others cannot tell what the reader is reading. It’s embarrassing for Japanese people if complete strangers found out that you are into a certain book genre or studying a certain subject.
  • For a similar reason, it is considered embarrassing for the content of your shopping to be seen by others. So the plastic bags you get at convenience stores and supermarkets are always more opaque than transparent.
  • Also, it should be noted that in Japan, customers are generally treated not as an equal but as a superior to the shop/server. Even in stores handling the cheapest of all goods, customers are treated courteously and their demands are met as much as possible. If a customer asks “don’t you have a bag for this or something?” the store will make an effort to provide a bag. It is said that customers are treated as if they were “gods” in Japanese service industries.
  • So if single-use plastics like plastic bags, straws and utensils are banned, it will be like the stores are mandating their customers to come prepared to receive their service, which goes against the idea of treating customers as “god’s.” 

There is no time to wait for addressing the plastic pollution issue, but I feel it will take a while for the general public in Japan to shift their mindset from prioritizing convenience for consumers and cultural norms above all other things to prioritizing actions to address global environmental concerns. I’m not very proud about this part of Japan.

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Anyway, the point I am trying to make here is that we can see that the idea of Mottainai used to be an essential part of Japanese cultural code of conduct, but it’s not a key decision factor now when it comes to impactful decisions like the ocean plastics charter.

“Japanese people embrace the spirit of Mottainai!” “Japanese people value the idea of reduce, reuse, recycle!” These are overstatements.

Japanese people can be just as environmentally ignorant as people of any other nationality. Japan is the 2nd worst country in terms of the amount of plastic waste per person.

In the 2016 ranking of “countries winning the recycling race,” Japan was found to have done a lousy job, as you can see below.

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5. Modern-day use of the word Mottainai

So when do Japanese people use the word Mottainai in their daily lives? It’s used in quite a few situations. 

5-1. When you spill ice cream

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When perfectly good food falls to the ground, it’s a Mottainai moment because the food itself and money to buy the food were put to waste.

Lately, I feel people are feeling more Mottainai towards losing the opportunity to get your money’s worth than regretting being unable to leverage the benefits of the food. However Japanese people have traditionally regarded “not wasting food” as an ideal.

This value has to do with the painful history of Japanese peasants. Since rice farming became a major industry in Japan (which was from around 300 BC), large portions of the rice that peasants grew were taken away as tax. So most rice farmers never really had enough rice to eat themselves, despite the hard labor. In years of poor harvest, famines occurred and peasants starved to death. Wasting food without eating was therefore considered a display of serious disrespect towards these hard-working farmers.

So still now, Japanese parents discipline their children during meals so as not to leave any food uneaten, and the reason is because that is disrespectful.

Cooking at home is relatively common in Japan as there are still many households in which the wife stays home to look after the house. Like in any other country, letting food you bought rot in the fridge is shunned. This is also a classic Mottainai moment.

5-2. When a girl’s too pretty

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When somebody is overqualified for a job, people say Mottainai, referring to the talent that’s not being put to its best use. So if a person speaks three foreign languages but does very domestic business, it’s considered Mottainai.

Similarly, if a girl who’s as pretty as Anne Hathaway works in a factory line putting lettuce on bread, this is indeed Mottainai. She should be modeling, acting, or doing something to further develop herself, people would think. The world needs to see her.

5-3. When a guy doesn’t deserve a Ferrari

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Everyone who worked hard to afford a Ferrari should deserve the supercar. But when people see an overweight snob in a ketchup-stained T-shirt and mustard-stained shorts driving a Ferrari, they say “How Mottainai.”

They mean the Ferrari was not made for rich people – it was made for classy rich people. Therefore, the Ferrari, being owned by this human mess, is unfortunately not fulfilling its potential. Another Mottainai moment.

So the Japanese word Mottainai is not really used in an environmental context (although it can) in Japan. But this is only because Japanese people are still not fully aware of the severity of environmental change and what causes them.

Once more people see the link between their spirit of Mottainai and the means to conserve the nature they love so much, the word may start being used for its international meaning.