Avoiding waste with the Japanese concept of ‘mottainai’


Article Link: Avoiding waste with the Japanese concept of ‘mottainai’

Mottainai – the Japanese notion that expresses regret of wasting a resource; when directly translated to English, it would mean ‘What a waste!’ or ‘Don’t be wasteful’. This concept is the equivalent of the west ideology of ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’, with an additional impression of having respect to the object. While the concept has gained prominence recently through international media and pop-cultural references, it is insisted by many that the spirit of mottainai has been a part of the Japanese culture for a long time.

The representation of Japan and the environment in this article is the concept of mottainai itself – people are aware of the mutual reliance and fleetingness of all things. Having ties with both Buddhist and Shintoism, both reflects the idea of Japanese cherishing and living in harmony with nature and the environment. Buddhist philosophy of interconnectness and frugality shows that there is a sense of wanting to preserve and protect the environment. As for Shinto animism – where spirituality in man-made objects and nature are celebrated, showing that the Japanese have an aesthetic appreciation and respect towards the environment.

What makes the concept of mottainai ‘green’ is the attempt to convey the intrinsic value in an item and to advocate people to utilize it till its full potential; bringing about the concept of recycling. It also serves as a reminder to Japanese that resources are limited and to conserve what they can. As frugality is highly valued in Buddhist philosophy, there is an idea of reducing waste and to reuse objects continuously till the end of its lifespan. Practices of mottainai are such as flushing toilets with waste water, recycling and reusing old kimono cloth to become chopstick holders, purses, fans (Wallace, 2014).

While some may present mottainai as a mentality rather than an economic concept (Coco, 2008), there are many doubts on whether this may be true. Are the Japanese recycling religiously because they love nature? As presented in Totman’s article, recycling was mainly because of economic purposes rather than the benefit of the environment (Totman, 1989). With rapid industrialization and urbanization, the environment has changed drastically. This has led to many Japanese to feel regret that natural sceneries (e.g. fireflies) are not as prevalent as before. This feeling of loss has led to a sense of wanting to preserve the environment through models such as satoyama and furusatos. However as illustrated in Moon’s article, the nature that these urban tourists are presented with is just a construct and commoditized version of nature (Moon, 1997). Therefore, there is a question of whether mottainai is only applicable towards something that is particularly beautiful, useful or something that holds a significant meaning for the Japanese. Furthermore, the concept of mottainai as with other Japanese concepts has been touted as a possible model of sustainable resource management. However, similar to the criticisms presented in Knight’s article, is the concept of mottainai really a solution that tackles the fundamental issues of today’s environmental crises (Knight, 2010)? While mottainai may discourage consumerism and materialism, there will always be conflicts between economic development and preservation of the environment.


Masters, Coco. “The Japanese Way.” TIME. N.p., 17 Apr. 2008. Web. 9 Sept. 2016. <http://content.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1730759_1734222_1734215,00.html>.

Wallace, Mary. “Mottainai: How the Japanese Say ‘Waste Not, Want Not’.” We Hate to Waste. N.p., 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 9 Sept. 2016. <http://www.wehatetowaste.com/mottainai/>.

Totman, Conrad. “Ecological Trends (The Period of Stasis (II)).” (1989): 260-61. Print. 11 Sept. 2016.

Moon, Okpyo. “Marketing Nature in Rural Japan.” Japanese Images of Nature(1997): 221-35. Print. 11 Sept. 2016.

Knight, Catherine. “The Discourse of “Encultured Nature” in Japan: The Concept of Satoyama and Its Role in 21st-Century Nature Conservation.”Asian Studies Review (2010): 421-41. Print. 11 Sept. 2016.

One thought on “Avoiding waste with the Japanese concept of ‘mottainai’

  1. This is a very interesting word and a highly relevant one for this module. As you note, there is nothing particularly unique about the notion that one (or society) should “waste not, want not.” However, the surge in interest in this term at particular moments in Japan’s recent past is fascinating. For instance, it was popularized in the mid-2000s when Nobel Peace Prize winner Waangari Matthai learned of the term and praised it. Why at this particular time? What about the status of the Japanese and international environmental movement made the term particularly apt? These are difficult questions to answer, but it is clear that this term is often used as a shorthand to praise the Japanese for their presumed eco-friendly attitudes. But the insistence on the importance of the term may also signal the incomplete acceptance of it as a way of life in Japan. Why emphasize something unless it is missing?
    See: http://www.treehugger.com/culture/mottainai-reduce-reuse-recycle-gets-ethical-in-japan-and-beyond.html

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