Made popular outside of Japan in 2005 in a speech to the United Nations by Wangari Maathai,mottainai has the meaning of not letting things go to waste. Translated literally, it can mean “wasteful” or even “such a waste,”yet like many words in Japanese has a deeper meaning and reflects the importance of treasuring an object and using it to its fullness.
Kintsugi (Repairing Pottery)
Traditional Japanese arts such as pottery or embroidery employ this principle as well, though not explicitly. In pottery, repairs are embraced as a chance to add beauty to a piece. The art "kintsugi" (金継ぎ) takes broken pottery and repairs it using lacquer and precious metals, such as gold, creating something that is more beautiful than it was.
Sashiko (Repairing Fabric)
Similarly, "sashiko" (刺し子) is the art of using embroidery to repair and reuse old clothes, to give a garment a new lease on life.
While it certainly would be easier to simply buy a new teacup or a new jacket, it would be wasteful to throw away the old ones. Japan is a country which has always embraced the spirit of finding new uses for old items, a reflection of the mottainai spirit.
Modern Examples of Mottainai
A more modern take on mottainai is the Otera Oyatsu Club. This NPO, originally founded in Nara, is a group dedicated to helping the community by taking donations and offerings given to Buddhist temples, and distributing them to those in need in the local community.
Often times, working hand in hand with the Otera Oyatsu Club, are local "kodomo shokudo" (こども食堂), or children’s cafeteria. These cafeterias provide affordable or free meals for children whose parents are working or absent, while giving an opportunity for the elderly to teach children about cooking and community. In this way, mottainai not only is about not wasting food, but sustaining the community and bringing people together.
About the author
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!