‘Mottainai Grandma’ spreads her environmental message in new cartoon series (Li An & Jianxing)

In 2004, Mariko Shinju, a local ‘author and illustrator’, wrote a book about a grandma who teaches children how to practice mottainai, a catch-all term for reducing and managing waste through mindful consumption. (Marino, 2020; McMorran, 2020) To embrace mottainai in daily life is to embrace the 4Rs – ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,’ and ‘Respect.’ (Marino, 2020) “Mottainai Grandma” later went on to become a phenomenal success, attracting young readers internationally. (Marino, 2020) It has even been adapted into an animated series, brandishing catchy songs to inculcate sustainable practices into the minds of the next generation. (Marino, 2020)

Marino’s (2020) article highlights the importance of mottainai in educating kids about the environmental impact of waste. Through the work of Shinju, we see involvement by state institutions to promote sustainability, such as Japan’s Ministry of the Environment, and private institutions like Kodansha – a publishing company in Japan. (Marino, 2020) Nonetheless, mottainai is lauded as an unique philosophy that places one’s everyday activities at the forefront of waste reduction. (Marino, 2020) Mottainai also ties in with cultural and social beliefs of the Japanese that nature and culture are not polarities, as they may co-exist in a sphere. (Kalland & Asquith, 1997, p. 12) Hence, the concept of displaying respect, which is part of Japanese culture, for every life on earth. (Marino, 2020) 

Marino (2020) highlighted how the cultivation of societal attitudes, such as consideration for the craftsmen who had designed our items, is imperative for making environmental changes. “Mottainai Grandma” encouraged children to finish all the food on their plates, and re-use old goods to reverse climate change. (Marino, 2020) 

Shinju also compared the grandmother to Buddha, adding that this feature makes her wise as her eyes ‘are half-open’, but they possess discernable insight into the actions that people perform. (Marino, 2020) This may be tied to Siniawier’s (2018) reading, in which minimalism is linked to Buddhist thinking on the transient nature of things. (p. 274) The purposeful comparison of “Mottainai Grandma” to Buddha may allude to Buddhist teachings that acquiring material goods leads to dissatisfaction, and that the removal of it leads to the erasal of negative qualities like avarice. (Siniawier, 2018, p.275&276) 

The concept of Japan being environmentally friendly has been etched into popular beliefs. (Silverberg & Smith, 2019) This myth has been propagated through efforts like these, as “Mottainai Grandma” has been translated into many languages and circulated internationally, and the concept has grown into a movement worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Marino, 2020; Silverberg & Smith, 2019; McMorran, 2020; Nobel Media, 2004; Miller, 2009) This could be an attempt by the environmental ministry to shape international perceptions of Japan’s green efforts and rebrand Japan’s image. Nonetheless, Kirby (2011) calls into question Japan’s approach towards promoting sustainability, as Japan recycles because of pragmatism and to help businesses save cost. (p. 182) Note, however, that sustainability should not be conflated with commitment towards climate change, for Japan continues to support environmentally damaging activities such as whaling to protect its industries. (Kirby, 2011, p. 165; Totman, 2018) We also know that when it comes to attributing responsibility towards sustainability and waste in Japan, it is the general public, and in this case, the newer generations that is re-educated and responsible for waste reduction, not the manufacturers or the businesses. (Kirby, 2011, p. 183; McMorran, 2020) Of course, it is not solely due to cultural attitudes that Japanese people recycle, but existing regulations regarding household waste disposal, as people classify their trash for collection in Japan. (McMorran, 2020; McMorran, 2020; McMorran, 2020) Historically, laws drove the Japanese to manage nature sustainably as the loss of forest grounds led to the loss of livelihoods. (McMorran, 2020; Totman, 1993, p. 269)

In conclusion, it is undetermined whether the promotion of “Mottainai Grandma signals Japan’s commitment to climate change; so long as Japan’s narrative of economic advancement eclipses environmental concerns, it would continue to repudiate environmentally-friendly actions if it affects its GDP. (Kirby, 2011, p.183) The state would promote sustainability through the path of the least resistance, through citizenry re-education rather than policy and regulation for businesses. (Kirby, 2011, p.183) 


Words: 687 (incl. in-text citations of 87 words) 


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