Ever wonder why the Japanese show so much respect for food, paper, textiles, water and other resources? It’s because for centuries, the concept of mottainai has been embedded into their cultural DNA.
Mottainai, literally meaning ‘essence’ is an ancient Buddhist term that translates into having respect for the resources around you, to not waste these resources and to use them with a sense of gratitude. Mottainai is closely associated with the conservation practices that we recognize in the West as the three R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle – with a fourth R added: respect. The respect practice stems from the Shinto belief that objects have souls (possibly those of one’s own ancestors) and therefore should not be discarded.
The Origins of Mottainai
For decades following World War II, Japan was a poor country. People recycled everything and wasted nothing. The word mottainai (waste nothing) was spoken in every household to warn children not to waste even a grain of rice, a scrap of paper, or a piece of cloth. Mariko Shinju’s Mottainai Grandma was written to remind the Japanese about their tradition of mottainai and its importance to their culture. You can read more about the author and her book here. It is an inspiration and a reminder to young and old, that earth’s resources are limited and to always be searching for new and creative ways to recycle and reuse.
There are Many Examples of the Practice of Mottainai
In Japan, old kimonos and made into beautiful accessories such as nuno zori, or cloth sandals, made from scraps of cloth and cord. Kimono cloth is recycled/reused in many other ways including purses, chopstick holders, glass holders and fans. My favorite is a set of chopstick rests with kimono fabric imbedded in acrylic that I received as a gift.
The Mottainai Lifestyle in Practice
My Japanese friend, Tomoko, practices mottainai in her household. She conserves water by using the toilet pictured here. Waste water from the sink on top is used to flush the toilet below. There are also two flush handles: a small flush for liquids only and a bigger flush when necessary. She purchases only one bottle to dispense liquids and then refills thereafter. Old bath and hand towels are cut and sewn to create rags for cleaning. Her local grocery stores collect all the food that is near expiration and sell it at a highly reduced price so that it gets consumed and not tossed away.
My daughter, who lived in Japan for eight years, told me that in Japan, when one receives a gift beautifully wrapped in paper, it is carefully unwrapped making sure not to tear the paper or cut the ribbon. Once you have unwrapped the gift, you carefully refold the paper and take it home with you to be reused.
The Japanese Are Exporting The Concept of Mottainai
Tokyo’s Mainichi Newspaper Group, together with Toyota and other corporations, supports a campaign to increase the practice of mottainai throughout Japan and beyond. The campaign was championed by the late Wangari Maathai, founder of Africa’s GreenBelt movement and a Nobel laureate, who recognized the potential of the mottainai concept to inspire others around the globe in 2005. She spoke widely about mottainai in Africa, Asia, Europe and the U.S.
Want to Incorporate Mottainai into Your Life?
Link here to learn more about the campaign, and to view a number of licensed household items that can help you integrate the mottainai lifestyle into your own life. And here are two more resources, both Etsy stores, to help you get started: Ideas for Recycling Vintage Clothing, Mom & Dad Make Cardboard Toys