March 23, 2023
The Spirit of Mottainai
A form of respect by the avoidance of waste
By Susu Smythe, March, 2023
The word “mottainai” has been in use in Japan for centuries. It is a purely Japanese word that has no equivalent in Chinese. It has gained recent popularity outside of Japan among conservationists to embody the philosophy of “waste not, want not” or “reduce, reuse and recycle”. However, this translation does not do justice to the rich and complex concepts that are contained in this word. The word intertwines principles from Buddhism and Shintoism, the two primary religions of Japan.
The Kojien Japanese dictionary lists three definitions for mottainai: (1) inexpedient or reprehensible towards a god, buddha, noble or the like; (2) awe-inspiring and unmerited/undeserved, used to express thanks; (3) an expression of regret at the full value of something not being put to good use. The meanings of the word “mottai” include intrinsic dignity and the essence of a being or object. “Nai” means the lack of something. Each of the three definitions involve an object or person that is important. The first and third definitions involve some form of disrespect of an important object or person. The second definition combines humility, awe and gratitude in relation to an person or object.
One of precepts of Buddhism is that there is a connection between all things, animate and inanimate and when there is waste, this connection is broken. Shinto is the centuries old, indigenous Japanese religion which is roughly translated into the “way of the kami”. The concept of “kami” is complex but can be roughly translated as spirits that may reside in any given animate and inanimate object. Some kami are more powerful and important than other kami and while most kami are good, some are evil spirits that cause harm. Wasting something would offend the kami within that thing.
The author, Hitoshi Chiba, described mottainai as follows: “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.”
Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan activist and Nobel Prize used the word mottainai in her environmental protection campaigns. “"Even at personal level, we can all reduce, re-use and recycle, what is embraced as Mottainai in Japan, a concept that also calls us to express gratitude, to respect and to avoid wastage."[
It is a core Japanese personality trait to abhor wastefulness. Mottainai has been a constant admonition for centuries. A kimono would have many lives, starting with an outer robe, to being cut down for a child, to being used as a table covering and finally as a diaper. A really fine kimono would be given to a temple for reuse in a temple banner or altar cloth.
Today’s fast fashion is the antitheses of mottainai. The waste statistics produced by today’s fashion industry are appalling. Of the 100 billion garments produced each year, 92 million tons end up in landfills; this means that the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second. In America alone, an estimated 11.3 million tons of textile waste – equivalent to 85% of all textiles – end up in landfills on a yearly basis. That’s equivalent to approximately 81.5 pounds per person per year and around 2,150 pieces per second countrywide. The fashion industry is producing twice the amount of clothing that it did twenty years ago and this production level continues to rise with an resulting acceleration of discards sent to landfills. The number of times an article of clothing is worn before it is discarded has fallen 35% in the past 15 years. This level of environmental impact is unethical and unsustainable.
The reuse and refashioning of vintage kimono is within the spirit of mottainai which includes expressions of gratitude and awe as well as practicality. Such reuse and refashioning is ethical and sustainable fashion, in sharp contrast to the waste of today’s fast fashion.
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