The spirit of mottainai … a Japanese term conveying a sense of regret at what we have wasted … and protect what we have

April 25, 2017

Mottainai is a Japanese term conveying a sense of regret concerning waste.

The expression “Mottainai!” can be uttered as an exclamation when something useful, such as food or even our time, is wasted, meaning roughly “what a waste!” 

Everyday usage of mottainai is directly tied to the Buddhist concept of regret over squandering or misusing material objects or other resources. But it’s actually had various meanings over the years, stemming from the words mottai (勿体), which indicates an air of importance or sanctity, and nai (無い), meaning a lack of something.

An ancient Japanese meaning of the word conveys a feeling of gratitude combined with shame from receiving something—or a favor—from a superior that is far greater than one deserves. In essence, Bill and Ted’s popular catchphrase, “We’re not worthy!” comes to mind. This particular usage may be outdated, but it clearly conveys an ideal of humility that survives to this day.

Don’t waste what we have

In November 2002, the English-language, Japan-based magazine Look Japan ran a cover story entitled “Restyling Japan: Revival of the ‘Mottainai’ Spirit”, documenting the motivation amongst volunteers in a “toy hospital” in Japan to “develop in children the habit of looking after their possessions”, the re-emergence of repair shops specializing in repairing household appliances or children’s clothes, the recycling of plastic bottles and other materials, the collection of waste edible oil, and more generally the efforts to stop the trend of throwing away everything that can no longer be used, i.e. the efforts of reviving “the spirit of mottainai“.

In that context, Hitoshi Chiba, the author, described mottainai …

“We often hear in Japan the expression ‘mottainai’, which loosely means ‘wasteful’ but in its full sense conveys a feeling of awe and appreciation for the gifts of nature or the sincere conduct of other people. There is a trait among Japanese people to try to use something for its entire effective life or continue to use it by repairing it. In this caring culture, people will endeavor to find new homes for possessions they no longer need. The ‘mottainai’ principle extends to the dinner table, where many consider it rude to leave even a single grain of rice in the bowl. The concern is that this traditional trait may be lost.”

And mottainai doesn’t just refer to food. Nanbu saki-ori, as seen in the video, is a traditional style of weaving created by residents in the southern part of Iwate Prefecture. They tear or cut apart used and worn fabrics and weave them into new clothes, furniture, accessories or other items along with strips of hemp or cotton. This eco-friendly practice not only creates beautiful new pieces of fabric, but ones with hints of nostalgia threaded in each unique pattern.

Protect our world

Now, if you’ve ever heard the word mottainai outside of Japan, chances are it’s thanks to the influence of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai. Showing off a T-shirt imprinted with the word, she introduced the term at a United Nations session as a slogan for environmental protection. Thanks to her tireless advocacy of the effective use of limited resources—the spirit of mottainai—she was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, making her the first African woman to win the prestigious prize.

If you click below, you can find a video below of her promoting the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in the 1970s in an effort to plant trees in Kenya while simultaneously training women in the areas of forestry, food processing and other sustainable and income-generating activities.

Too good

Finally, mottainai can also be used to describe another situation: when something or someone is too good for you. It’s essentially another way to say, “What a waste!” Let’s hope you never hear your partner say you’re mottainai for them!

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