By Dr. Daniel Werede (Advisory team) - E-Green Life-Addis Ababa, 

What is Mottainai and how is it applied in the day-to-day lives of Japanese?

 Mottainai is a Japanese word translated as “what a waste!” It is used to express regret when a resource or once possession is wasted. It is also a Buddhist philosophy embedded into Japanese cultural DNA for centuries, to have respect for and not to waste the resources, and to use them with a sense of gratitude. As one Japanese put it, “In mythical stories there are stories about Mottainai ghosts that will come and get you if you waste food or mistreat objects”.

Some argue however that, the culture of mottainai is in decline in modern day Japan with the exponential growth of a consumer society. Nonetheless, mottainai is listed as the second out of 7 best words/cultural practices that best describe the unique eco-cultures of present day Japan. Some examples of Motainai include the use of wastewater, in modern metropolitan cities like Tokyo, to flush toilets in modern buildings. The mottainai culture extends to a table manner as well, where wasting even a single grain of rice is considered as being disrespectful! The respectful practice stems from the Shinto belief that hundreds and thousands of Gods and spirits exist in every single object. Treating objects with care is very important as objects are believed to have souls and therefore should not be discarded.

 Japan as a small island nation, with almost no significant natural resources, depended largely for its development on its human capital. Especially following the years after World War II, Japanese have learned to live in harmony with their environment using the small resources in a very efficient way.  People recycled everything and wasted nothing.

The Mottainai campaign in Japan

The most popular Mainichi newspaper has been calling on Japanese “to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to prevent Global Warming, like for example by not driving their cars for distances they could easily walk, turning off lights when they aren’t in-use, using energy conserving home appliances and bringing their own reusable shopping bags instead of using unrecyclable plastic bags. Many people across Japan have shown their support for the concept of MOTTAINAI, with a recent poll showing that 80 percent of Japanese are aware of the MOTTAINAI Campaign”(source,

The “Mottainai” Campaign beyond Japan

Prof. Wangari Maathai founder of Africa’s Green Belt Movement and a Nobel laureate, helped to bring the concept of mottainai across the globe. At a session of the United Nations in 2005, Prof. Maathai introduced the word mottainai as a slogan for environmental protection. She wore a T-shirt with the word "mottainai" printed on it. Prof. Maathai "explained that the meaning of the term mottainai encompasses the four R’s of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Respect." Prof. Maathai has worked to popularize the concept of motainai in places outside of Japan. She has been speaking about the concept in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States to create a more global environmental consciousness to promote ethical consumerism and to encourage people do more in terms of sustainable thinking and innovation.

Mottainai is a very powerful mindset that we all need to adopt to build environmentally responsible society. Let’s be reminded that most of the resources that are essential for our very survival are limited. Using innovative technologies and practices to reduce, recycle, and reuse resources are inevitable.

I encourage the readers of this article to try to incorporate the mottainai lifestyle into your own lives and pass it on to your children, as habits developed in childhood tend to last a lifetime. By doing so we will achieve the goal of transforming the mindsets of the society at influential stages of early learning.

 Be part of this great campaign to reduce waste, reuse finite resources, and recycle what we can with respect for nature and its finite resources (MOTTAINAI!)




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