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Mottainai (Japanese: もったいない, [mottainai]) is a Japanese term conveying a sense of regret concerning waste.[1] 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!" or "Don't waste."[2] In addition to its primary sense of "wastefulness", the word is also used to mean "impious; irreverent" or "more than one deserves".[3]

Mottainai is an old Buddhist word, which has ties "with the Shinto idea that objects have souls."[2] Mottainai has been referred to as a tradition,[2] a cultural practice,[4] and an idea which is still present in Japanese culture,[2] which has become an international concept.[5]

Usage and translation[edit]

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).

As an exclamation ("mottainai!") it means roughly "what a waste!" or "Don't waste."[2] An English equivalent is the saying "waste not, want not." A more elaborate meaning conveys a sense of value and worthiness and may be translated as "do not destroy (or lay waste to) that which is worthy."[6] However, mottainai is an example of a word, like sukiyaki and sushi, that cannot easily or accurately be translated directly into other languages.[7]



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.[1]

One of the earliest appearances of the word mottainai is in the book Genpei Jōsuiki (A Record of the Genpei War, ca. 1247).[8]

Mottainai is a compound word, mottai+nai.[9] 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 (), meaning "inevitable; unnecessary to discuss", and tai (), 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.

Efforts to revive the tradition[edit]

In November 2002, the English-language, Japan-based magazine Look Japan ran a cover story entitled "Restyling Japan: Revival of the 'Mottainai' Spirit," documenting the motivation amongst volunteers in a "toy hospital" in Japan to "develop in children the habit of looking after their possessions," the re-emergence of repair shops specializing in repairing household appliances or children's clothes, the recycling of PET bottles and other materials, the collection of waste edible oil, and more generally the efforts to stop the trend of throwing away everything that can no longer be used, i.e. the efforts of reviving "the spirit of "mottainai"".[10] In that context, Hitoshi Chiba, the author, described "mottainai" as follows:

A modern observance that practices mottainai is the yearly festival of Hari-Kuyo, or the Festival of Broken Needles.

Use by Wangari Maathai[edit]

Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai has used the word mottainai in an environmental protection campaign

At a session of the United Nations, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai introduced the word mottainai as a slogan for environmental protection; she wore a T-shirt with the word "mottainai" on it, and she "explained that the meaning of the term mottainai encompasses the four Rs of reduce, reuse, recycle and repair." She argued that "we should all use limited resources effectively and share them fairly if we are to avert wars arising from disputes over natural resources."[7] Maathai has worked to popularize the concept of mottainai in places outside Japan.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Daijirin Japanese dictionary 2nd ed. (Japanese)
  2. ^ a b c d e Kestenbaum, David (October 8, 2007). "Mottainai Grandma Reminds Japan, 'Don't Waste'". National Public Radio (NPR). Retrieved July 22, 2013. 
  3. ^ Masuda, K: Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, page 1139. Kenkyusha Ltd., 1974
  4. ^ García Angelo, Miguel (June 20, 2009). "El mottainai japonés" [The Japanese mottainai]. (in Spanish). Los Tiempos. Retrieved July 22, 2013. 
  5. ^ Nicol, C. W. (June 2, 2013). "Finding ways not to say 'mottainai!' in the woods". The Japan Times. Retrieved July 22, 2013. 
  6. ^ Alan G. MacQuillan; Ashley L. Preston (1998). Globally and Locally: Seeking a Middle Path to Sustainable Development. University Press of America. p. 157. ISBN 0761811265. 
  7. ^ a b Sasaki, Mizue (7–9 November 2005). Perspectives of language: cultural differences and universality in Japanese (PDF). Paris: UNESCO. pp. 119–128. 
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Steve Scott (December 23, 2005). "The message of Christmas: Clergy work hard to compose words that will be heard by many this weekend". Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved July 24, 2013. The Rev. Nancy Maeker, associate to the St. Paul ELCA bishop, has preached the past couple of weeks about Christmas using the Japanese concept of "mottainai," a compound word that means the negation ("nai") of something with precious value ("mottai"). 
  10. ^ a b Chiba, Hitoshi (November 2002). "Restyling Japan: Revival of the "Mottainai" Spirit". Look Japan. Archived from the original on April 5, 2004. Retrieved July 22, 2013. 
  11. ^ Iwatsuki, Kunio (2008). "Sustainable Use of Biodiversity, with Reference to the Japanese Spirit of Worshipping Nature (in "Conserving Nature, A Japanese Perspective")" (PDF). Biodiversity Network Japan: 4–11. ISBN 978-4-9901743-1-6. Archived from the original (PDF) on January 9, 2015. Retrieved July 25, 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

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