Mottainai (もったいない, [mottainai]) is a Japanese term conveying a sense of regret concerning waste. The expression "Mottainai!" can be uttered alone as an exclamation when something useful, such as food or time, is wasted, meaning roughly "what a waste!" In addition to its primary sense of "wasteful", the word is also used to mean "impious; irreverent" or "more than one deserves".
Usage in Japanese
Mottainai in Japanese refers to more than just physical waste (resources). It is even used to refer to thought patterns that give rise to wasteful action. Grammatically, it can be used in Japanese as an exclamation ("mottainai!") or as an adjective phrase ("it feels mottainai"). There is no plural form. The collection of mottainai things could be called mottainai koto (もったいない事?).
In ancient Japanese, mottainai had various meanings, including a sense of gratitude mixed with shame for receiving greater favor from a superior than is properly merited by one's station in life.
Mottainai is a compound word, mottai+nai. Mottai (勿体?) refers to the intrinsic dignity or sacredness of a material entity, while nai (無い?) indicates an absence or lack (Mottai further consists of mochi (勿?), meaning "inevitable; unnecessary to discuss", and tai (体?), meaning "entity; body").
Mottai was originally used in the construction mottai-ga-aru (勿体が有る?, literally "having mottai"), which referred to a dignified entity. Today, mottai is also used in the construction mottai-buru (勿体振る?), meaning "pretentious" or "giving oneself airs" by assuming more dignity than one truly possesses.
Buddhists traditionally used the term mottainai to indicate regret at the waste or misuse of something sacred or highly respected, such as religious objects or teaching. Today, the word is widely used in everyday life to indicate the waste of any material object, time, or other resource. Compare also the concept of tsukumogami "artifact spirit", which are said to live in old objects that have gained self-awareness and are angered if the object is thrown away wastefully.
Use by Wangari Maathai
Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai visited Japan in 2005 for a government and media-sponsored event related to the Kyoto Protocol. She was given a tee-shirt with the word "mottainai" on it, which she later wore on appearances on Japanese TV.
- Conspicuous consumption
- Itadakimasu, the Buddhist attitude concerning resources
- Simple living
- Daijirin Japanese dictionary 2nd ed. (Japanese)
- Masuda, K: Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, page 1139. Kenkyusha Ltd., 1974
- This early use of the word appears in a story about Yoshitsune in the Battle of Yashima. On horseback, Yoshitsune dropped his bow into the sea. A vassal cried out, "Don't pick up the bow, let it be!" but he picked it up while being pursued by the enemy Taira clan. After the battle was over, the vassal used the word mottainai in admonishing Yoshitsune that he should have considered his own life more valuable than even a worthy bow. Yoshitsune retorted that if the enemy saw that inferior bow, it would have disgraced the Genji clan. Referencing site in Japanese: 1; "26 Historical place of Yoshitsune dropped the bow"(26弓流しの跡), 2; 義経の弓流しの跡
- PDF Perspectives of language: cultural differences and universality in Japanese M Sasaki - Cultural Diversity and TransversalValues: East–West Dialogue