Mottainai – もったいない

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大山祇神社  Oyamatsumi-jinja, Kochi. Photo by flickr user berobeeman. All rights revert to originator.
Oyamatsumi-jinja, Kochi. Photo by flickr user berobeeman. All rights revert to originator.

Mottainai is a Japanese word expressing a sense of regret at waste.

Mottainai is a compound word, mottai+naiMottai (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 (勿), meaning “inevitable; unnecessary to discuss”, and tai (体), meaning “entity; body”)…

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

Another of the threads in my old cloak, this sense that items we’d term mere objects seem at times imbued with a greater there-ness than their mere presence would suggest. I avoid allowing food to go to waste not solely for the image of a disused half a head of celery in the compost heap somehow sad it was unable to fulfill its prime directive, but can’t help experiencing a moment of not sadness but recognition when an item goes to waste at my hands. It recalls a moment in kindergarten when asked to choose a favorite color & draw a picture with it. When my teacher asked why I had chosen black I replied “Because nobody else chose it and I felt sorry for it.”

Modern psychologists might suggest mottainai is a manifestation of a guilt complex, though the word and its etymological roots* were thoroughly inculcated in Japanese cultural DNA since ancient times. Rather, in view of persistent Japanese observance of their own ancient religion (Shinto) I would tend to attribute this pervasive social more to an earlier human mindset, in which we viewed the trees, stones, and streams themselves as possessed of a silent, watchful awareness.

I’ve always found it hard to explain how among countless hundreds of miles of backcountry trails one stone catches my eye; wants to come with me, even if only long enough to find company atop the next trailside cairn. My first inclination is always to leave a thing as I find it: to trust the arrangement of rocks, trees, and waters are proper inasmuch as they have come to exist in just such a state in course of their own self-determination. A boulder calved from a mountain is a rock, a stone, a pebble, sand, and soil in its course. Who am I to interfere?

Neither this perspective nor that represented by mottainai necessarily require a person to view stones, consumer goods, or foodstuffs as imbued with living souls, only to acknowledge an obligation to treat them as gently as we would an urn of grandfather’s ashes. The hunter gives thanks to the deer. The mason is thankful for a kindly-shaped stone. The prescription for mottainai is gratitude.

* I encountered the following analysis of the etymology of the word mottainai by /u/wonkydonky in /r/wikipedia on Reddit and thought it worth reposting here, for academic interest:

mottainai” (もったいない) is indeed a Japanese term conveying a sense of regret concerning waste, being wasteful, or being more than something is worth. And it’s not used just about sacred or highly-respected objects, but can be used for anything, gasoline, electricity, etc. I suppose it might have roots in the Buddhist term 勿体 and the Shinto belief in objects having souls, but I wouldn’t know. I know that the kanji for もったいない is indeed 勿体ない, but I’ve never seen it outside of a dictionary.

But I seriously doubt that any more than a handful of Japanese-speakers actually know its origins. To the average Japanese speaker, it just means, “wasteful”, without any religious imagery, in the same way that the average English speaker would consider “sinister” to just mean, “someone who plots evil,” and without any sort of relation to “left-handedness”, despite the fact that it comes from the Latin word for “left-handed”.


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