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”.


A Tale That Can Finally Be Told

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This all happened the last week of school –boarding school– in the late spring of 1986. I can tell you about it because the locks have all been changed at Christchurch now, and because I have the photos.

I’m oath-bound not to name the outgoing senior who handed me a blue plastic sailboat on a rusting steel ring containing three keys: two large and one small. It wasn’t until I had accepted them that I learned the terrible responsibility I had unwittingly undertaken: I was now the Keymaster. Of the two large keys one opened only a couple of doors and those of little consequence: a supply closet in the gym and some fire doors. The other was the Master Key. It opened every door in school except some classrooms, the interior locks in the Administration Building (e.g., the Headmaster’s Office, that of the Dean of Students, &c), the Nurse’s office, and most regrettably the dining hall pantry. Every student room, every hallway, many classrooms, the gym & supply closets, the library, the kitchen & dining room, the art room, and the maintenance building, which leads us to the last, littlest key. This key allowed operation of either of the electric golf cart ‘Bustmobiles’ deployed on weekends by duty staff. Many duty staff wouldn’t patrol without a Bustmobile so they could seldom be outright taken, but the key allowed us at times to discharge the battery of one or both when some manner of large-scale mischief was afoot, like a break to Camp Sappy Dow (a forest camp miles off through the woods at which warm beer & strong cigarettes could be consumed with relative impunity).

My group of friends were centered around the 4th floor of the Bishop Brown dormitory, known for generations before us as ‘The Penthouse.’ Our floor was the top floor of the dorm, accessible at the time only via a fire escape or a long climb up the main stairs: stairs which resounded with the shouts of students and the furtive footfalls of discipline-minded faculty alike. The remainder of the Penthouse was occupied by the art classroom and a small apartment inhabited by a taciturn faculty member and his chihuahua, neither of whom was ever seen outside its doors unless our youthful rambunctiousness disturbed his peace. We’d hear a shrill call of “Uh, we’re through __________ now,” the blank being filled with whatever offense had been perceived. We learned quickly that as long as we were quiet, we would be left alone.

Boarding school boys do the same things their brothers not-in-exile do, only more secretively. Ofttimes boys found themselves shipped off to boarding school for too much of whatever it was, be it smoking, fighting, drinking, goofing off, or getting high. Among the denizens of the Penthouse were guys who smoked weed, drank strong rum, and engaged in general teenage hooliganism. Other than our four year sentences the one thing that united us was a deep and abiding love of tobacco. Some of us (myself included) had by the time we arrived at Christchurch developed prodigious tobacco habits. Moving to a nominally tobacco-free campus was supposed to represent a fresh start we could leverage to defeat our worse angels, but the unique combination of neglect, addiction, and ‘street smarts’ meant we all arrived independently at the same conclusion: that it was not necessary to abandon our habits, only alter our pursuit of them to suit our new reality.

The ventilation system revealed - It was hot on the 4th floor in the summer when we arrived, so the placing of a fan in the window was understandable. That they never asked us why it remained up all year is a miracle.
The ventilation system revealed (back of roommate’s head for scale) – It was hot on the 4th floor in the summer when we arrived, so the placing of a fan in the window was understandable. That they never asked us why it remained up all year is a miracle. The melting I explained was a result of ‘having once left it up against radiator.’

To this end my roommate and I created a cross-ventilated, fan-driven smoking den in our room complete with nighttime ash catchment (disguised as a Kool-Aid can), quick-extinguishing facilities (one-liter bottles half-full of water), and error-proof concealment (a pack of Marlboros fit perfectly inside a ‘sealed’ box of Ivory soap, the brand sold in the school commissary). Some preferred smokeless tobacco, and found equally ingenious ways to conceal their cans and the nasty brown effluent that resulted from their use. Other items of indispensable contraband found secure homes hidden inside light switches and fixtures, or hung in heavy winter coats at the back of closets.

One problem we constantly faced was “What to do with all the empty [cigarette packs/dip cans/rum bottles]?” My roommate discovered an architectural idiosyncrasy in our room alone that afforded us a deep, tall void behind our bunks (thoughtfully constructed of sheets of plywood): a void into which empty packs & cans could be tossed. We realized there was a certain almost suicidal risk in storing all these empties in our room, discovery of which would have resulted in immediate dismissal. We were unperturbed. My roommate and I had succeeded in concealing a kitten & litter box under our bunks for almost six months. Never once had a teacher looked under there. The deep, tall void filled from the top and emptied from the bottom, all the way in the far back corner. We took our chances advisedly.

Bottles presented another problem. Large and frangible as they were, they would not fit where the other empties went. Another enterprising Penthouse resident took advantage of a maintenance situation to replace the padlock to the attic with one of his own, creating a secure, spacious location for bottle-stashing. Why we were saving all these empties was not fully understood even by us, but in the last week of school a purpose for them evolved from a night of surreptitious drinking and crabbing by a bonfire down at the school waterfront: we would give them to the school administration, along with our hoard of empty cigarette boxes & dip cans.

We returned from the waterfront atop the single working Bustmobile, though the electric motor was incapable of hauling more than two people up Headmaster’s Hill so the final stage of the assault was conducted on foot. On the deck behind the commissary were a couple of faux-redwood picnic tables, which probably looked good in pictures in the school brochure but which were a no man’s land of disuse: always covered with pine needles. While half of the group peeled out to the Penthouse to collect our swag (itself a feat of stealth rum-drunk at 4AM in a crowded dormitory) the other ascended the deck and hoisted one of the picnic tables onto the peaked roof of the commissary. We reconvened at the staging platform, handed up shopping bag after shopping bag of packs, cans, and bottles, then set to creating a sculptural representation of a year of wanton debauchery.

Those are rum and vodka bottles, about 30 of them visible to the naked eye. The pyramid on the facing bench is constructed of dip cans. Poured on the tabletop in a pile were all our empty cigarette packs. The carton cases below the vent were the final detail: branding the display with the globally recognizable symbol of the smoky, grown-up vice.

The note attached read: "Dear CCS- Thanks for a great year! Signed- The Guys You Couldn't Catch"
The note attached read: “Dear CCS- Thanks for a great year! Signed- The Guys You Couldn’t Catch”

We retreated to the Penthouse and gathered in giddy triumph around the little quarter-moon window that faced the center of campus.

First on the scene, scant moments after sunup and no more than an hour after our goof was complete, was Coach Dan Nolan (liquor), who from our vantage point atop Bishop Brown dormitory (the same perspective as the photo) was seen to stop with his hands on his hips, then visibly laugh as he read the note and beheld our hoard. That he instantly pivoted and looked directly up at the Penthouse came as no surprise, though boys dove away from the window as if taking fire.

The Headmaster was not amused, but in the end our efforts amounted to fifteen minutes’ inconvenience for Woodland & Eric (the school maintenance crew). By the time they leveled our predawn display a crowd had formed, their faces a reflection of awe, amusement, and the final realization that they had been missing out.

Among us were students on the Dean’s List (myself included) and permanent fuckups. After graduation some dropped off the face of the Earth. Others started families and careers in technology, real estate, telecommunications, and investments. Some others, to the eternal shame of alma mater, have gone on to become writers.