The idea of ‘mottainai’—a Japanese approach to the concept of waste—could provide the west with a philosophical answer to environmental crises. Kevin Taylor, a graduate student in environmental philosophy from Southern Illinois University, explores this nuanced ethic of care and its deep roots in eastern ways of thinking.
In environmental studies, islands are often noted as isolated places where people have caused problems by exhausting local resources. The most famous example is Easter Island.
The builders of the famous statues, aware that they were almost completely isolated from the rest of the world, must surely have realised that their very existence depended on the limited resources of the small island. Yet they exhausted its resources anyway. This is often used as a metaphor for what we are doing to the planet; an idea made popular by Clive Ponting in his A Green History of the World.
Mottainai has come to be thought of as an all-encompassing Japanese term for the four Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle and respect.
In an increasingly globalised world, island nations have access to outside resources but the island mentality remains in countries such as Japan, which has developed a particular environmental awareness articulated concisely by the word mottainai.
The term expresses a feeling of regret at wasting the intrinsic value of a resource or object, and can be translated as both ‘what a waste’ and ‘don’t be wasteful’.
In recent years, the concept of mottainai has been popularised by Japanese and international media, as well as through children’s literature and in academia. Despite the pop culture applications, the word itself is said to have origins in Buddhist philosophy and religious syncretism. It has long been used to express the feeling of regret that carries with it metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic connotations.
As a concept, mottainai reflects the feeling that arises from the awareness of both the interdependence and impermanence of all things.
‘The four Rs’
Thanks to Wangari Maathai, an accomplished political and environmental activist, mottainai has come to be thought of as an all-encompassing Japanese term for the four Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle and respect.
Before Maathai popularised mottainai outside of Japan, the word was being used by environmentally conscious Japanese activists in 2002. But Japanese scholars and authors insist that the mottainai spirit has been a part of Japanese culture for a long time, especially during the resource-starved post-war period.
Indeed, many Japanese attribute a mottainai attitude to their grandparents. Mariku Shinju illustrated this very attitude in her children’s book Mottainai Grandma.
‘Our parents told us what mottainai is so we know what it means. But if we don’t teach them to our children, they don’t learn,’ she says. ‘It’s a very scary thing. That’s why I thought we have to make an effort to teach the idea and to change the situation.’
This older generation was forced to live through a resource-poor era and the practice of frugality found resonance in Buddhism. Mottainai Grandma was published in 2005, which was the same year Maatthai first introduced it to the world.
According to Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist at Tokyo Gakugei University, mottainai also has ties with Shinto animism, the idea that all objects have a spirit—or kami.
The idea that we are part of nature and should maintain a harmonious relationship with nature is a deep part of Japanese psychology.
Not only does nature find itself imbued with kami, Shinto also celebrates the spirituality in man-made objects.
A prime example of this can be found in the idea of tsukumogami(animated household objects). Tsukumogami are a type of yōkai—variously translated as monster, spirit, goblin, ghost, demon, phantom, spectre, fantastic being, lower-order deity, or more amorphously as any unexplainable experience or numinous occurrence.
When an object turns 100 years old, it attains a spirit and becomes a tsukumogami. The concept that 100-year-old objects are imbued with spirits was an outgrowth of the Shinto reverence for objects and sacred spaces. A modern day ritual known as ningyō kuyō collects unwanted but not unloved dolls and, in a kind of mock funeral, prays for them and thanks the dolls for years of fond memories.
Even though the dolls are not technically tsukumogami, a ritual is performed to purify and drive out the spirits within. Both Shinto and Buddhist sects perform the ritual, though funerals are typically the realm of Buddhist priests. The general perception is that the ritual is necessary to help the passage of the spirit from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead.
This reverence for objects is commonly applied to katana, teapots and calligraphy brushes, but also to more mundane items such as pencil boxes, room dividers and umbrellas.
While Mottainai has been identified in such manifestations, it is for the most part understood as having its origins in Buddhist philosophy—particularly the concept of pratītyasamutpāda, or dependent origination.
Buddhist environmentalism is said to have begun with Gary Snyder in the early 1950s. Among Snyder’s contributions to eco-Buddhism was his ecological reading of Indra’s net—a metaphor used to illustrate the concept of dependent origination.
Eco-Buddhist David Barnhill describes the theory as ‘relational holism’, simultaneously affirming the primacy of relationships among particulars, but also the primacy of the whole.
It is here that we find Buddhism and ecology share a common vocabulary—particularly in terms of interconnectedness—which cautions us to be mindful of our actions so as to minimise suffering and not be wasteful.
The Buddhist monastic tradition emphasises a life of frugality in order to concentrate on the attainment of enlightenment. In fact, stories of ascetic denial in Buddhism are not uncommon, and such stories lend credence to the belief that mottainai is Buddhist in origin. It is within this move towards frugality that a Japanese aesthetic begins to emerge from mottainai as a concept of waste.
Mottainai attempts to communicate the inherent value in a thing and encourage using objects fully or all the way to the end of their lifespan. Leave no grain of rice in your bowl; if a toy breaks, repair it; and take good care of everything.