Mottainai: A Japanese Philosophy of Waste 

By Kevin C Taylor
Director of Religious Studies, Memphis University
March 24, 2023
There is a word in Japanese that has gained traction over the past two decades with environmentalists worldwide. That word is mottainai. The translation of the word can mean “what a waste” or “don’t be wasteful.” Said one way, it is an exasperated sigh, such as when you see something on television. Said another way, it can be a directive: “eat all your food” or “don’t throw that away yet; it can still be useful.” 
Used goods being recycled and reused
Used goods in Japan ofter gain a new life being re-used by others
 Part of the reason this word has gained recognition was because it was popularized by the Kenyan political and environmental activist Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011). Maathai visited Japan in 2005 when she was introduced to the concept and she became an enthusiastic advocate of mottainai. Indeed, Maathai referred to mottainai as the fourth R: recycle, reduce, reuse and RESPECT. Maathai’s support was instrumental in part because of her worth with her affiliation with the Green Belt Movement which she founded in 1977. This platform helped raise mottainai from a local Japanese phenomenon to global status such as her advocating for the concept in 2009 at the United Nations Summit of Climate Change.

The word is said to be Buddhist in origin but it is perhaps better understand as Japanese due to the syncretic nature of Japanese Buddhism which incorporates elements of Daoism, Confucianism, and Shintoism. Those Shinto elements can be observed in mottainai as strongly as the Buddhist elements. For example, a type of Japanese monster from folk lore known as tsukumogami express the ideals of mottainai in the origin of this peculiar monster.

A tsukumogami is a type of Shinto spirit or kami known more popularly as a yokai. Tsukumogami are everyday household objects that are believed to become imbued with a spirit or soul after one hundred years. A scroll from the 14th century named the tsukumogami-ki (“Record of Tool Specters”) tells the story. It claims that these objects, due to their advanced age, were thrown to the curb in an annual spring-cleaning kind of event known as susuharai roughly translated as soot sweeping. The household objects were angered at being thrown out so carelessly after years of faithful service and so they terrorized the community as terrible yōkai until the story ends with their pacification at the hands of a benign Buddhist tsukumogami; animated Buddhist prayer beads. The tsukumogami-ki thus serves as a cautionary tale born out of the spirit of mottainai which cautions us “don’t be wasteful” while echoing Wangari Maathai’s astute observation of respect for objects.

The concept of mottainai taps into the notion that nature is imbued with intrinsic value. Intrinsic value is something that is good in and of itself. Conversely, extrinsic values are those things valuable insofar as they help you get something else. Money is the typical example of extrinsic value. We value money because it can help us buy things. Mottainai teaches us that objects and nature have intrinsic value. Sure, we value an umbrella because it helps us stay dry in the rain but we also value some things, echoing Maathai, out of respect. An umbrella, a pencil case, a shōji (Japan’s sliding paper doors) are all treated well not just for the use value or their delicate nature but out of respect. The iconic example is the katana, the Japanese samurai sword said to be the soul of the samurai. Objects in Japanese culture are often treated with greater reverence. Mottainai, as a Japanese philosophy of waste, elevates objects beyond mere extrinsic goods that are useful for specific purposes, to objects worthy of respect for their contributions to living a flourishing life.

That is not to be said that Japan is not wasteful. Any time I discuss mottainai to an audience, I am often met with resistance from those citing a Japanese tendency of excessive packaging. Mottainai is not a descriptive philosophy of how things actually are in Japan but a prescriptive environmental ethic of how they ought to be. This is the case with most all Western moral theory! What is encouraging is the successful popularization of mottainai within Japan and across the globe. I recently purchased a card game called Mottainai such is the popularity of the term in permeating Western culture.

This all makes sense when we consider the Japanese Buddhist elements of mottainai. As I said earlier in this article, mottainai is as much Shinto as it is Buddhist. To the extent that mottainai is said to have origins in Buddhism, perhaps based on monastic practices of frugality and Buddhist notions of interconnectedness, mottainai as a Japanese philosophy of waste is one of many Buddhist concepts embraced by environmentalists.  Interconnectedness in Buddhism is both a theory of causality but it also is a belief that all things, living or non-living, are connected. On the one hand, your suffering is my suffering and so Buddhism seeks to transform all suffering into loving compassion. On the other hand, since we are all connected, the waste we create by filling landfills, failing to recycle, or failing to respect material goods and nature, will inevitably come back to haunt us. It’s karma. This view of nature has led environmentalists to use a Buddhist concept to great effect: interconnectedness. Because we are all interconnected, mottainai is a word of caution that teaches us to remember that our actions have consequences. Mottainai is in some respect, a contemporary Japanese kōan. Zen master Hakuin Ekaku created the kōan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Wangari Maathai may have elevated mottainai to kōan status as a mantra to caution us to respect nature. In that way, it is also a form of mindfulness, another Buddhist innovation. The same Zen Master Hakuin actually taught mindfulness in everyday life. Zen Master Dōgen taught that the mountains and trees have Buddha-nature. And contemporary Japanese Buddhist monks successfully saved a plot of trees from becoming an apartment complex by invoking the same concept of Buddha nature.  
Post your comments