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Mottainai written on a truck, followed by the sentence "I strive towards zero emission"

Mottainai is a term of Japanese origin that has been used by environmentalists. The term in Japanese conveys a sense of regret over waste; the exclamation "Mottainai! can translate as "What a waste!" Japanese environmentalists have used the term to encourage people to "reduce, reuse and recycle", and Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai used the term at the United Nations as a slogan to promote environmental protection.


Usage and translationEdit

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!" In addition to its primary sense of "wastefulness", the word is also used to mean "impious; irreverent" or "more than one deserves".[2]

Mottainai in Japanese refers both to physical waste and to wasteful action. MacQuillan and Preston propose a more elaborate translation that conveys a sense of value and worthiness as "do not destroy (or lay waste to) that which is worthy".[3]



In ancient Japanese,[clarification needed] 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.[citation needed]

One of the earliest appearances of the word mottainai is in the book Genpei Jōsuiki (A Record of the Genpei War, c. 1247).[4]

Mottainai is a compound word, mottai+nai.[5] 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").[citation needed]

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.[clarification needed][citation needed]

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.[citation needed] Today, the word is widely used in everyday life to indicate the waste of any material object, time, or other resource.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

Modern Japanese environmentalismEdit

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".[6] In that context, Hitoshi Chiba, the author, described mottainai as follows:

A modern observance that practices mottainai[clarification needed] is the yearly festival of Hari-Kuyō, or the Festival of Broken Needles.[citation needed]

At the Opening Ceremony of the Science and Technology in Society Forum in 2005, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stated: "In Japan, there has long been a spirit characterized by the word mottainai, which could be translated as 'don't waste what is valuable'."[7]

Use by Wangari MaathaiEdit

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.[8] According to Mizue Sasaki,[9]

Dr. Maathai, brandishing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word MOTTAINAI, explained that the meaning of the term mottainai encompasses the four Rs of reduce, reuse, recycle and repair ... [and ] made the case that we should all use limited resources effectively and share them fairly if we are to avert wars arising from disputes over natural resources.

Maathai has worked to popularize the word mottainai in places outside Japan.[10] At the 2009 United Nations Summit on Climate Change, she said "Even at personal level, we can all reduce, re-use and recycle, what is embraced as Mottainai in Japan, a concept that also calls us to express gratitude, to respect and to avoid wastage."[11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Daijirin Japanese dictionary 2nd ed. (Japanese)
  2. ^ Masuda, K: Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, page 1139. Kenkyusha Ltd., 1974
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ 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 mottainashi 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
  5. ^ 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"). 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ "Speeches and Statements by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi". 
  8. ^ Murko Siniawer, Eiko (2014). "'Affluence of the Heart': Wastefulness and the Search for Meaning in Millennial Japan". The Journal of Asian Studies. Cambridge University Press, Association for Asian Studies. 73 (1): 165–186. 
  9. ^ Sasaki, Mizue (7–9 November 2005). Perspectives of language: cultural differences and universality in Japanese (PDF). Paris: UNESCO. pp. 124–125. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ "Statement by Prof. W. Maathai, Nobel Peace Laureate, on behalf of Civil Society" (PDF). United Nations. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-06-01. Retrieved 24 February 2018.  Cited in Maruko Siniawer, 2014, p. 177.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit