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“Mottainai“: the Japanese waste-avoidance culture


In Japanese, the word “mottainai” expresses the regret, even distaste, that we feel when we see a thing or resource wasted. But looking past its definition, mottainai means primarily a state of mind long rooted in Japanese culture and now resurgent among its eco-advocates since the turn of the millennium. Equivalent to the West’s 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), it, however, also includes a philosophical and religious dimension, adding a 4th R for “Respect”.

Credit : Jason Ortego

The idea of respect for nature, considered sacred, is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. The same applies to respect for things as, in Shinto mythology, all things have a soul. The idea of curbing waste and wastage as expressed in mottainai also includes the notions of sobriety, asceticism and interdependence advocated by Buddhist philosophy. Anchored in these concepts and history, mottainai is therefore much more than just an ecological slogan. For Lucie du Rocher, economics researcher at the University of Paris 1, for the Japanese it is a “state of mind focused not only on food wastage, but more generally on respect for nature and on the gratitude we should demonstrate for natural resources. It also expresses a sense of regret for wasted opportunities, wasted resources and misused or underused knowledge and skills.”

Mottainai gained prominence after the Second World War. The Japanese archipelago, poor in natural resources, having come out of the war with its economy bled dry and its land razed, soon learned not to be wasteful. Every foodstuff was economized and everything was used in a way to make it last as long as possible. Since then, Japan has become one of the richest countries in the world, but certain habits persist on this geographically constrained territory whose population has nearly doubled since the Second World War. “Japan’s population density and overcrowding underpin people’s deep distrust of wastage and their passion for optimizing resources,” explains an article on mottainai on

Mottainai is reflected on a daily basis in many ways. In Tokyo, for example, many buildings are fitted with toilets flushed by wastewater. Lucie du Rocher also cites the resurgent fashion in the last ten years for furoshiki, a type of wrapping cloth that appeared in Japan in the 8th century to protect high-value items. Today, it is increasingly used to replace plastic bags and paper packaging. As for the employees of Japanese firms, in 2005 Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi asked them to adopt “cool biz” attire in summer, in other words not to wear waistcoats and ties. A complete revolution – permitted by law – and which, says Lucie du Rocher, should have reduced carbon dioxide emissions in the summer of 2006 by 1.14 million metric tons, by simply raising the air-conditioning kick-in limit by 2°C.

Profoundly Japanese, could mottainai be an inspiration for the West? Yes, says Kevin Taylor, an American environmental PhD research student at Southern Illinois University, a specialist in mottainai. He focuses on the concept to suggest new ways for Western countries to understand and tackle the challenges of sustainable development. He advocates the need for education and awareness, to make it natural and spontaneous for every individual to create practical solutions to avoid waste and overconsumption.

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