...splash splash leaving the water running.
She will come and say, “Mottainai!”
“One cup of water is enough! Don’t Waste it - Mottainai!”
When I throw away mandarin peels, she will come and say “Mottainai!”
“Dry them in the sunshine. Put them in the bathtub.
Mandarin peels will make you feel so good!”
“A warm and sunny mandarin bath!”
– Excerpt from Mottainai Grandma by Mariko Shinju
Mottainai is a Japanese word denoting how something has lost its core or substance. I am writing about this idea seeing how the throwaway culture grows with regard to material and non-material things in today’s world. Mottai means something superior, majestic or self-important and Nai is a negation of it. The word refers to how the preciousness of something is wasted or lost when it is not used properly. In Shinju’s verse given above, Mottainai Grandma laments how conserving mandarin peels and water are precious acts in daily life.
Mottainai is an old Buddhist word and Shinto idea. It is about how objects have souls and how everything that exists around us is due to someone’s hard work and time gone into it. Roughly translated, it means ‘what a waste!’ or ‘don’t waste’. The meaning conveys a sense of value and worthiness and may be translated as ‘do not destroy or waste that which is worthy’.
A sense of compassion is expressed towards the story behind every object. Like it is mottainai to lose your mobile that you saved money to buy or how it is mottainai to not use your talent to improve your community. Remember, Japan is known to have few natural resources and there is a culture of maximising potential in this limited space. It is thought poorly when there is wasted food on the plate. Each grain is eaten keeping in mind the farmer’s labour and hard work on the fields. In Japan's small fishing villages, people still eat the fish completely – a practice from ancient times (of not wasting). Sometimes we may forget to eat food packed for us by our parent or loved one and when we realise that we feel mottainai; there is a sense of having wasted precious resources recognising the effort behind it. Osagari, which translates to hand-me-down, is a custom of reuse where wearing previously-used clothes from an older family member is valued.
The spirit of mottanai influenced environmentalist and Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya. She describes how its spiritual root is relevant in today’s world: to reduce and re-use everything, and recycle what we can towards restoring the environment, adding how in Kenya practising the three Rs helps women when there is a demand for their reusable carrying baskets. A sense of appreciation, a pause for awareness, a small reflection when we get something (gratitude) and realising how suddenly we can lose it all is the beginning of how mottainai can be evoked in our daily busy lives.
It’s not just about reconciling with material loss but getting a perspective on what goes on behind the various activities around us.