japan, philosophy, sustainability

Mottainai thinking: Japan’s unique approach to sustainable living

An earlier version of this article appeared at JapanTravel 


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

Travelling across the archipelago 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 outside of urban centres it was near-impossible finding 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 begs the question: what are the underlying values that are driving the way that the Japanese think about their environment? What are they doing well, and how can we learn from them?

KonMari cleaning for a tidier and more mindful existence

A few years ago the design world was swept up in a tsunami of praise for Japanese author Marie Kondo’s bestseller,The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The book examines Kondo’s more mindful approach to sorting out the clutter by asking the question, does this object spark joy?

Kondo’s technique focused 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, or what brings joy and happiness into your life.

The thing about this technique is that it encourages a more sustainable mindset. For example, apply Kondo’s technique 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”.

The sun is shining too brightly and warmly to stay inside all day, mottainai! That banana with a tiny spot, don’t throw it away, mottainai! A bowl of noodles left uneaten by a picky child, mottainai!

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 abuse them.

For example, Popular shopping chain Don Quixote has in their Tokyo stores a section for “mottainai vegetables”: imperfect produce that is too good to be discarded.

The undertones of Buddhist philosophy, thinking about the interconnectedness of all things, is not unique to Japan, but is expressed in a uniquely Japanese way that can be observed in daily life (The Philosophers’ Zone looks more closely about the links between Buddhism and modern environmentalism).

The term also has history in the post-war culture of making do with limited resources, rationing and economic crisis. Older people in Japan reuse chipped rice bowls to house succulents, and juice bottles are repurposed as watering cans for balcony gardens. The older generation knows not to take what we have for granted: I remember watching my grandmother, a child of the Great Depression, 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: things have a spirit within them that must be respected and appeased. 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 the way 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 so rashly: consider the value of letting its branches continue to stretch towards the sky.


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.”

The logic is not hard to understand. 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 that.

Try it out for yourself: prepare a meal with fresh, locally-grown produce. Plant some herbs in pots on your balcony. Display seasonal flowers in your home. See if 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. But then again, let the nation without problems cast the first stone.

By accepting that we need to ask for assistance, we recognise that caring for our 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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