Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

Though sometimes honored more in the breach than the observance, Japan's philosophy of "waste not, want not" strongly influences everyday culture. (Picture: freehandz / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Mottainai Culture: The History and Philosophy of Waste in Japan

Essay   Posted on December 20, 2018 in culture, society, waste, environment • By Krys Suzuki • Read Related Articles

Japan is well known for its culture of respect, for each other and for nature. One of the most important concepts deeply embedded in this lifestyle of respect and culture is that of mottainai.

mottainai is more of an idea than an individual word, but for convenience sake it is often translated as “wasteful,” or "what a waste." It is used and understood as a phrase reminding one to be mindful of their resources and environment, and not to let things go to waste.

The word originally stems from Buddhist teachings and ties in with Shinto beliefs of animism – that all objects have a spirit. It also corresponds with the belief that as beings of nature, we should all aim for harmony with the environment and with all things. By avoiding wastefulness and holding a sense of respect for all that we use and own, we can maintain that harmonious relationship.

The History of Mottainai

Reviewed from a historical perspective, the concept of mottainai developed into great importance in relation to food supply and demand, and the idea that leaving food behind is wasteful.

Japan is known for its high population density in comparison to its small size. The early Edo period and Meiji period saw a particularly sharp increase in population after peace fell on the land after a long period of war (the "Warring States Period", or sengoku jidai). Agricultural production stabilized, and agricultural land and productivity also increased due to the development of new civil engineering technologies. However, with that also came a change in the ways of agricultural production, such as the restriction of farmland allotted per family, and the reduction of the use of cattle, horses and the like, resulting in an increased workload via manpower.

Called kinben kakumei (勤勉革命), or the Industrious Revolution, by the Japanese demographic historian Akira Hayami, this was the period between 1600 and 1800 that led up to the Industrial Revolution. This term contrasted Japan’s labor-intensive technologies of this time with the capital-intensive technologies of Britain's Industrial Revolution.

(JP) Link: Japan’s Industrious Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution of Britain

日本の勤勉革命と英国の産業革命 - 縦椅子のブログ

In the latter half of the Edo period, food production ceased to rise, and the population stagnated for a while as well. After the Meiji era, population surged once again. Yet this time, the production of food did not rise alongside it as before.

It has come to be understood that the spirit of "mottainai" eventually spread from observing this relationship between population density and food production in particular. When this population increase occurred without the food increase to follow, people became more aware of their available resources, and developed a “fear of famine” as well as a greater desire to make the best of what they had. Encouraging each other to avoid waste whenever possible, the idea of “mottainai” as we know and live it today was born.

(JP) Link: The History of Japan and Food: The Birth of ‘Mottainai’

「食の歴史と日本人 もったいないはなぜ生まれたか」川島博之著 - 爽風上々のブログ
「もったいない」と言う言葉は英語などには訳せないということで、英語でもそのまま「MOTTAINAI」として紹介されるなどの動きがあり、他にも紹介しているようにエネルギー減耗について議論している「もったいない学会」というものもあります。 この「もったいない」と言う言葉の成り立った背景について、現在は東京大学准教授ですが各所で環境や食糧、バイオマス生産などの研究をされてきた著者が主に食料生産と人口増加と言う面から掘り下げて考察されています。 非常に中身の濃いものと感じました。今年も200冊以上の本を読みましたがその中でも上位に位置付けたい本でした。 本書「はじめに」に書かれているのは、「もったいな…

The Four Rs

I refuse!
The fourth R - "refuse" - is an important part of the modern interpretation of mottainai. (Picture: metamorworks / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Most people know of the three Rs – reduce, reuse, and recycle. Many of us have been taught this in school and through growing up. However, Japan continues to outdo us by adding one more important R word into the mix – respect. A huge part of mottainai lies in more than just the physical aspect of avoiding the production of tangible waste, but the idea of respect: for the item, for its ‘soul,’ and for the environment.

In terms of garbage disposal, the sanitation departments throughout Japan have slightly edited this concept to fit in with their educational information about recycling, and have switched out ‘respect’ with a different fourth R word– ‘refuse.’

As seen across the official websites of the sanitation departments of each prefecture of Japan, and on the Green Co-op website below, the four Rs combined are referred to as the 4R運動 (The 4 Rs Movement) and explained in the following way:

  1. Refuse: Refuse unnecessary plastic, such as plastic bags when shopping (bring your own from home!)
  2. Reduce: Reduce the amount of garbage you produce
  3. Reuse: When possible, reuse items as much as you can
  4. Recycle: When you must throw something away, recycle whenever possible

(JP) Link: The Four Rs


The sanitation website of Sakai City goes into further detail of the 4 Rs Movement and offers a detailed breakdown of how this awareness and proper disposal practice helps the environment, including how waste reduction helps preserve the natural environment and encourages biodiversity, how the reduction of CO2 emitted from burning waste can help prevent global warming, and even how citizens can lower their taxes spent towards waste disposal if the amount of waste needing to be disposed of in the first place is reduced.

(JP) Link: The Four Rs Movement to Reduce Waste

ごみを減らす4R運動 堺市

Mottainai in the Media

After becoming such an important part of Japanese culture, mottainai began to spread not just around the nation, but worldwide. Soon, this idea would be commonly seen in many forms of media. Two of the most well-known examples are below.

Mottainai Grandma

Mottainai Obaasan
Mottainai Grandma knows what you did with that mandarin peel last summer.

Mottainai Grandma emerged as a popular mascot of eco-friendly living for adults and kids alike through the well-received publication of a children’s picture book, Mottainai Obaasan (勿体無いおばあさん; Mottainai Grandma) by author Mariko Shinju.

The book features cute and relatable scenarios of a child and his grandma as she tries to instill in him the concept of mottainai through funny dialogues and exchanges such as the one below.



"When I throw away mandarin peels, she comes and says "Mottainai! Dry them in the sunshine. Put them in the bathtub. Mandarin peels make you feel good!"

(JP) Link: Mottainai Grandma

もったいないばあさん-Mottainai Grandma-Mottainai Baasan

The Mottainai Campaign

The next, and probably most internationally notable example of mottainai, is the Mottainai Campaign by Professor Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman and environmental political activist who received a Nobel Peace Prize in the environmental field for "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace" in 2004.

The campaign came about through Maathai's positive impression during her visit to Japan in 2005, particularly by the idea and spirit behind mottainai.

環境 3R + Respect = もったいない … Reduce(ゴミ削減)、Reuse(再利用)、Recycle(再資源化)という環境活動の3Rをたった一言で表せるだけでなく、かけがえのない地球資源に対するRespect(尊敬の念)が込められている言葉、「もったいない」。

The environmental 3Rs + Respect = mottainai...This word expresses not only the 3Rs of environmental conservation - Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle - but also Respect for Earth’s irreplaceable Earth resources .

Maathai advocated for the expansion of this beautiful Japanese idea as a worldwide movement towards environmental protection and preservation. Thus began the Mottainai Campaign. The campaign spread out as a global activity through her already established "Green Belt Movemement," which aimed to build a sustainable recycling-oriented society by disseminating our wasteful, environmentally burdening lifestyle, with mottainai as its catchphrase.

The Green Belt Movement

The Green Belt Movement was initially founded in 1977 by Maathai as a non-government organization (NGO), which works at the grassroots, national, and international levels to promote environmental conservation through planting trees. This movement, which started with a mere 7 trees to be planted, has now planted about 51 million trees in Kenya and around the continent of Africa.

Along with helping the environment, the Green Belt Movement contributes greatly to the democratization of the Kenyan society by pushing for equality through improving the status of women and the poor. Women in poverty are greatly involved in both the decision-making processes of the organization, as well as the afforestation of the land. In 2005, the concept of mottainai was added to their practices to further enhance their activities and outreach.

(JP) Link: Mottainai: A Message from Japan to the World


Contradicting Mottainai Values

Despite the positive movements that have risen out of the spread of the spirit of mottainai, and Japan’s strong cultural belief in it, according to recent observations, it seems that recently Japan might not be quite as eco-conscious as it was at the height of the movement. Even with the existing recycling laws and all the efforts made to be more environmentally conscious, it seems there is still much more to be done.

In year 2016, Japan generated around 43.17 million tons of general waste, an equivalent of approximately 925 grams per day per person. If this trend continues, it is believed that Japan’s landfills will have reached their capacity in about 20 years.

The issue remains not just the limited amount of landfill space on a small island nation like Japan, but the fact that even the burning of the waste would not be enough, as the ashes itself would still take up a considerable amount of space.

(JP) Link: The Problem of Too Much Waste: Japan's Landfills May Be “Land-FULL” Within 20 Years!

もっとダイエットが必要なごみ問題 : 20年後には最終処分場が満杯に!

Also, in a statistical analysis by the Ministry of Environment in Japan, the amount of "food loss," or any food intended for consumption that is unsold, left over or passes expiration, was shown to have reached apprximately 6.46 million tons in 2015.

This is said to be attributed to Japan’s sanbun no ruuru (3分の1ルール), or “one-third rule,” a commercial distribution practice that encourages food manufacturers to have their food products delivered to retailers within the first third of the period between the product’s creation and expiration date. If the delivery fails to meet that deadline, the retailers have a right to refuse the item, even if there is nothing inherently wrong with the product, and despite there being an entire two-thirds of that period remaining for consumers to purchase. This results in many of these items being thrown out or otherwise left unused, despite no expiration or flaws.

Thankfully, a commission has been set up with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries to reevaluate these practices and hopefully reduce this staggering amount of unnecessary food waste, with the establishment of food banks and other organizations that seek to repurpose these unused food items by donating them to social welfare institutions and to the poor and homeless.

(JP) Link: "Mottainai!" Contradiction in Japan: 6.5 Million Tons of Food Waste

日本人1人あたり、毎日、茶椀1杯分の食品を捨てている。 食料自給率40%を切る日本の矛盾がここにある。

While Japan continues to consider alternative and more innovative ways to dispose of both general and food waste in a more environmentally friendly way, it goes without saying that the biggest contributing factor would be for individuals to change their lifestyles and make more effort to produce as little waste as possible, as well as for greater value to be placed on recycling.

Daily Mottainai Practices

Despite these shortcomings, mottainai is a living, breathing approach to waste reduction whose principles, as Professor Maathai have noted, can be applied by anyone.

The following blog offers 8 useful practices that you can incorporate into your daily life now to reduce waste. Some of these you may already be doing, and some may surprise you!

  1. Eat everything on your plate: it goes without saying that the first and easiest thing you can do to reduce food waste is to eat everything on your plate, and when possible avoid taking more food than you are able to consume.
  2. Make use of less-than-fresh veggies: People are less likely to buy or use vegetables that are beginning to show blemishes, but most don’t realize that many of these are still usable! As long as they are not completely spoiled rotten, many foods can be salvaged by cutting off the blemishes and using the good parts. Softened and over-ripe fruits and veggies can be blended into smoothies, or boiled in soups.
  3. Freeze extra food: A great way to prevent food spoilage in the first place is to freeze excess and unused foods for later use. Many fruits and veggies can be frozen and used later in smoothies and soups or stir-fries. Even bread and cooked rice and beans can be frozen!
  4. Save the water from your rice: This one surprised me, as I wasn’t aware of not just how many uses rice water had, but also the benefits! Some of the surprising re-uses for the water left over from your cooked rice are as face and hand wash, watering plants, reusing to boil your veggies, and even for cleaning!
  5. Reuse coffee grounds: Another commonly left-over food item with some surprising uses is coffee grounds! They make great fertilizer when added to potted plants, and keep away both weeds and pests. Other uses are as shoe polish, deodorant, and inside ashtrays. You can even use it as a skin exfoliant!
  6. Hand creams: These are so common, I didn’t even realize at first how wasteful they could really be! As such a popular gift item, and an inexpensive luxury, they are quite easy to accumulate. Because of this it is also pretty common for many of these little bottles to pile us and go unused over time, eventually leading up to just being thrown out. But did you know there are actually even more uses for hand lotions that can help you get rid of them faster and avoid the pile-up? Aside from just skin care, it can also be used in your hair for smoothing, and for shaving. It is also useful for helping to remove stuck labels an stickers that are difficult to peel off, and as a de-fogging agent to prevent vapor from sticking to your bathroom mirror when you shower.
  7. Lotion: As above, body lotions also often meet the same fate as hand lotions. Luckily, most of these also have similar uses, and can even be added to a spray bottle of water to use as a cleaner!
  8. Stop showers/tap water: Lastly, another helpful practice for both conserving the environment and reducing your water bill is not to leave water from the tap or shower running for long periods of time. When showering, turn off the water during lathering and shampooing, and only run it when it is time to rinse. Likewise, when washing dishes, soap the dish sponge beforehand and leave the water off while scrubbing the dishes, only running it when it is time to rinse off the lather.

(JP) Link: 8 Daily Mottainai Practices

もったいないを実践するためにやりたい13個の生活術 | 生活百科
生活をしていると出てくるのは「ゴミ」ですよね。 しかし、そのゴミはゴミではないかもしれないのです。 実は、まだまだ使えるものである可能性があります。 でも日々を暮らしていると、そんなことに気づかずに捨ててしまうものです・・・

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.


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