Four Ways to Adopt the Japanese Concept of Mottainai in Your Life
Google searches for “how to live a sustainable lifestyle” increased by 4,550% in the 90 days leading up to Earth Day (20th April) in 2020. There are so many tips out there on leading a “sustainable lifestyle.” And sometimes it’s confusing. Our community member, Tanvi Saraiya, breaks down an evergreen Japanese concept called “Mottainai” (which literally means what a waste in Japanese) and how it can serve as the single guiding principle in our everyday decisions.
For years, I have been obsessed with traditional and modern Japanese textiles and crafts. They have a deep culture of minimalism, connection, and zero waste.
The ancient term ‘Mottainai’, linked to Buddhist and Shinto philosophy, which draws from the opposite of its literal meaning of waste, propounds the idea of something being too good to waste.
This reflects in handcrafted Japanese objects and way of life. After reading about the boro exhibition at the Amuse Museum in Tokyo, which shows unique products and textile arts that are exclusive to the Japanese traditional culture, I realized we can learn a lot from ‘Mottainai’. From the Boro exhibition, I learned that no garment made was wasted, and every garment was used till the very end. The Boro exhibit showcases how garments were made with the finest quality naturally dyed fabrics, which were mended again and again. Even patches used for repairing the garments were meticulously embroidered, to make the garments look even better than before. With our fashion choices adversely affecting the environment and people, the concept of Mottainai can help us bring back a culture of connection, respect, and care.
Mottainai attempts to communicate the inherent value in a thing and encourages using objects fully or all the way to the end of their lifespan. Kevin Taylor from ABC news summarizes it well — “Leave no grain of rice in your bowl; if a toy breaks, repair it; and take good care of everything.”
There are some Japanese words that cannot be translated into English and Mottainai is one of them. It is difficult to explain even in Japanese. However, in this post, I have tried, based on my understanding, to list four ways you can incorporate Mottainai into your life.
Mottainai is a crucial part of any child’s education in Japan, allowing them to understand its importance to carry it on through generations.
‘Mottainai Grandma ‘is a famous Japanese children’s book series by Mariko Shinju, teaching the importance of not being wasteful. Its popularity is a testament to children’s interest in sustainability cultivated over time. Recently animes have also been created based on the picture book. This highlights the importance of starting young to inculcate the importance of not wasting any resources. The Mottainai Grandma book was published in Hindi and introduced to children in schools in New Delhi as a part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. This is a great initiative to start instilling values of sustainability in children. The hard copy of the book can be purchased from book houses across the country and the animes are uploaded on YouTube.
The sense of respect for fellow beings and nature is observed even while walking around the streets of a busy and bustling Tokyo. There is not a speck of litter on the floor, beautiful gardens full of trees line the city, and people bow to each other.
In regards to ‘Mottainai’, clothes and objects are treasured as they hold a story.
During a Japanese textile talk at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney, curator Dr. Gene Sherman** discussed the relevance of Japanese fashion and sustainability in the modern-day. Japanese culture and designs are the original slow fashion, using natural indigo dyes and incorporating natural materials, which respect the people who make them, and mother earth too. Dr. Sherman also discussed how she kept a minimalist wardrobe of timeless and treasured pieces, ensuring no item was left unloved or discarded. How wonderful would it be if we all treasured the clothing we wore and just purchased less?
In an ever-expanding and global world, we can’t expect to personally know the maker of our t-shirt, nor can we expect it to be made entirely by a person as machines are increasingly taking over human hands. What we can expect and demand, however, is for the brands we buy from to be transparent and respect workers and the planet across the supply chain. This respect and responsibility should be placed on both the consumer and the brand. Because as consumers when we respect our clothes we can make them last, and this can reduce our carbon footprint.
In the history of Mottainai culture in Japan, the ‘Mottainai Grandma’ teachings require you to ask yourself: “Do I actually need this?”
In the Boro exhibit of the Amuse Museum in Tokyo, one of the most beautiful quotes about a kimono passed down through generations reads:
“There is life dwelling in it; the endless will and wishes of humans are delicately woven into each fiber.”
We can greatly reduce our excessive consumption when we are able to pass down our well cared for garments. It requires us to choose wisely in the garments we invest in, care for our garments with love, and repair and mend them.
Reuse and Recycle
According to some statistics, we send about 88 percent of leather and textiles to landfill. If we understood and used the concept of ‘Mottainai’, clothing and accessories would be reused and recycled.
A quote from the Boro exhibit at Amuse Museum in Tokyo summarizes this well — “Until the end of the Taisho Era*, people took their own handspun and hand-dyed hemp cloth to the tailor in town to make work trousers which the husband then wore for years and the wife kept mending no matter how threadbare they got.”
Once the garments were not usable, they were turned into kitchen rags, and when rags were worn out, they were used along with firewood, the ash was then used to wash vessels.
The SUSS Take
The golden rule for you to remember is — less waste = less Mottainai (waste) = more sustainable.
Tanvi J Saraiya is a Bangalore-based social entrepreneur and Co-founder at ZIVELI. ZIVELI is a craft-based Sustainable Lifestyle Brand. She is extremely passionate about crafts and living a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.
*“Taishō is a period in the history of Japan dating from 30 July 1912 to 25 December 1926, coinciding with the reign of the Emperor Taishō.
** Publication — Contemporary Japanese Fashion — The Gene Sherman Collection.