Mottainai Thinking

How Japanese philosophies teach respect for nature

By Steph Newman    - 6 min read

Japan is certainly a land of contrasts when it comes to the environment. 

Whilst traveling through Tokyo and Sapporo, I noticed paradoxes: 

  • Rice balls and other snacks had so much excess packaging, but gardens were lovingly cared for
  • There was no rubbish to be seen on the ground anywhere, but it was hard trying to find a recycling bin!
  • Images of pristine landscapes were ubiquitous, but nobody seemed to be addressing the mountain of disposable plastics at cafes, shops and tourist destinations. 

This made me think: what are the underlying philosophies that are driving the way that the Japanese think about their environment, and what lessons can we learn from them? 

KonMari cleaning for a tidier, happiness-driven life

This technique for organising your home from Japanese author Marie Kondo has been a massive sensation both in her homeland and internationally. Her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up looks at a more mindful approach to sorting out the clutter: what sparks joy (tokimeku) for you?

The KonMari technique also focuses on tidying by category instead of room: what use is organising the books in your living room if there are boxes of paperbacks under your bed? Choose a "thing" to tidy (books, clothes, toys, kitchen implements) and go right through your home, consolidating and working out what you really need.

The point about this technique is that it encourages a more sustainable mindset. For example, apply KonMari to a shopping trip: do I really need this new jacket? How does it make me feel? What different situations will I be able to wear it in? How long will it last me? This is a welcome alternative to the fast fashion fad that seems to be sweeping the West, where new fashions every season mean excess purchasing and resources wasted to maintain our "throw-away" lifestyle.

Mottainai thinking: reduce, reuse, recycle, respect

The term mottainai translates roughly to "wasteful" or "too good to be wasted".

It could be that the sun is shining too brightly to stay in home with Netflix. Mottainai! That banana with a tiny spot, don't throw it away! Mottainai! That person who is always late but you'll always be friends with because they always make you smile (I mean that you shouldn't give up friends with flaws: that is, it would be too wasteful to give up a friend due to their lateness) Mottainai!

This idea fits in perfectly with the notion of living a low-carbon lifestyle. Mottainai reminds us to consider what value the things around us have: people, animals, plants, water, soil. It teaches us not to take these things for granted, nor to abuse them.

It's got overtones of Buddhist philosophy and thinking about the interconnectedness of all things. The term also has history in the post-war culture of making do with limited resources, rationing and economic crisis.

Now that I think about it, this isn't so far from watching my grandmother save every rubber band, piece of string and envelope for future use. Mottainai.

Kami: the spirit in everything

The Japanese tradition of Shintoism links back to the very early days of the island nation. Shinto emphasises the notion of animism: all things have a spirit.

Kami is the Japanese name given to these spirits. There are kami for rocks, trees, rivers and mountains.

Whether you are an animist or not, the idea that objects have value plays an important part in the way we approach everything around us. If you consider that a lake has beauty and value, don't pollute it by throwing your chip packet away to float on its surface. Don't chop a tree down for fun: consider the value of letting its branches continue to stretch towards the sky.

The Philosophers' Zone looks more closely about the links between Buddhism and modern environmentalism.

A clean home and caring for your family

In 2008, Time Magazine looked at Japan's growing trend of recycling being used as a way to show kindness and affection to others: "Gaggles of housewives think that being environmentally conscious is a trendy way to care for their families."

This is quite a logical idea. If you care about someone, you want to give them a clean and safe environment. Growing plants indoors, choosing fresh produce and trying to reduce pollution do just this.

Try it out for yourself: prepare a meal with fresh, locally-grown produce and put some flowers from your garden or local park next to your partner/child/parent/sibling's bed. Plant some herbs in pots on your balcony. See if you and the people around you notice a change in attitude or happiness.

Yoroshiku onegaishimasu: Accepting that we have room to learn

This is the first phrase I learned in Japanese, and rightly so. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu has several translations, but the one I want to focus on here is "please assist me" or "please help me".

This phrase is often said when meeting others for the first time, when entering a new situation, and, of course, when asking for help.

Japan does not have a blemish-free record when it comes to environmentalism; indeed it has many issues with sustainability, waste management and animal rights. However, it is important to remember that most countries have so much to do in order to improve as they move forward into the future.

By accepting that we need to ask for assistance, we recognise that saving the planet is not an individual pursuit, but a team effort. We need to accept our shortcomings (and those of others) and move on towards a more positive future. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

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Steph Newman

Steph Newman @steph.newman

In the last few years, I've travelled more than some people do in a lifetime. I've covered four continents, ten countries and more kilometres of train travel than I thought mentally endurable. Japan for me is a home away from home. It's the land I yearn for, and it calls to me from across the ocean.  In 2017-2018, I'm living, studying and working in Japan! 

Join the discussion

Victoria Vlisides 4 years ago
This is one of the best articles I've read about "Mottainai." I've been doing some research about Mottainai lately, as a student is making a speech about mottainai culture. It is really hard to translate it, but we did not find the "it's too good to waste" one. Rather, "It's a shame to waste." I really love the one you found/gave in this article because it is positive vs. negative/scolding. So much of the western culture focuses on this scolding part of environmentalism rather than the actual joy of respecting things to help the environment. Thanks for this.
Steph Newman Author 4 years ago
Thanks so much, Victoria. I really feel motivated to keep writing when I get feedback like this. Never underestimate the positive impact your genuine interest in someone else's work can have. I'd love to read your speech when you finish it as I'm a sociology student with a keen interest in the way Japanese societies form worldviews. :)