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Mottainai: Culturally Embedded Sustainability

Mottainai: A common Japanese phrase often given by parents and grandmothers in reaction to a half-eaten plate of food or an unfinished bowl of rice.

More than just a word, mottainai holds deep cultural and historical meaning. Serving a value for many, this word has shaped the behavior of generations past and perhaps generations to come. As our current population evaluates and affirms its role in preserving tomorrow's Earth, the cultural value of mottainai has the potential to be not just a behavioral trait, but a rallying call in the sustainability movement. Let's explore this a bit more.

What Does Mottainai Even Mean?

Like many words in the Japanese language, mottainai doesn't have a direct translation. Most people would quickly translate it as "don't waste." But, when looking deeper into the meaning behind the word, one discovers the emotion and expectation embedded within.

Nicole Sato, a second-generation Japanese American, lived in a household where the word was used regularly. When describing its deeper meaning she first said, "it means to regret letting something go..." paused for a moment, then said, "not regret, actually, shame that you're wasting something." As she recalled the times the word was used to "encourage" her to finish her vegetables, it became apparent that mottainai had undertones of disappointment and was primarily used to chastise and scold the recipient for their lack of conservation of food and resources.

This common usage, described above, has a historical background. During and following WWII, Japan faced widespread resource shortages including everyday items like rice, vegetables, and dairy goods. "I learned that during WWII, there were posters that would say, 'I won't want until we win,'" Sato shared, recalling stories that were passed down to her. She went on to describe post-war conditions that forced families to sell valuable items just to get a quarter pound of rice. It was in this environment that mottainai was both a term of resilience and a daily reminder to conserve what little resources were available at the time.

Incarcerees grew their own fresh produce in camp. Photo from Densho.org

Across the Pacific Ocean, although in a completely different set of circumstances, Japanese Americans also practiced this same cultural value in the concentration camps scattered across the western half of the United States. Having brought only personal items which they could carry, and limited to a rationed supply of foods and resources, mottainai was similarly a word of reuse, resiliency, and conservation.

Does this tupperware look familiar to you? There a whole article on common Japanese American heirlooms.

Decades later, as we reminisce on our Japanese American older adults washing Ziplocs and folding supermarket bags in those little triangles, perhaps this historical awareness can help us to have a deeper understanding of the roots in their behavior. Perhaps, as we rummage through the boxes and boxes (and boxes) of hoarded heirlooms, Tupperware, files, hotel shampoos, collectible coins, keepsakes, and you name it, instead of rolling our eyes, we can appreciate how this value is a Japanese and Japanese American-specific representation of the Greatest Generation.

Mottainai for a New Generation

As Sato described her modern relationship with mottainai she stated, "these days it's less about the shame. Actually, when I think of the word now, I think of that obon dance and see the word in an eco-friendly way." For 21st century Japanese Americans, mottainai has since evolved in scope and intention.

Enter Nobuko Miyamoto.

As one of the front runners of a movement to evolve mottainai into a rallying call for this generation to sustain and preserve the Earth, Nobuko Miyamoto has produced events, media, and of course, is the originator of the ubiquitous obon dance called Mottainai. In describing her early thought process around the word she described how mottainai was a built-in culturally-relevant way for the Japanese American community to become part of the environmental sustainability conversation.

Miyamoto described the environmental conversation at the turn of the century stating, "global awareness of sustainability became the major issue of our generation. But our communities were not part of the environmental conversation because lead environmentalists were not looking at people of color." Miyamoto went on to describe the irony of this circumstance when, in fact, communities of color had traditions and cultures that were inherently taking care of the environment as a way of life. Values like mottainai were already embedded within community behavior.

In describing the genesis of the prolific Mottainai obon dance, it was Miyamoto's intent to bring the value to the forefront in both mind and body. Starting locally with the family, she described how her hope was that first families would begin to talk about it, and it would later bubble up to the temple and community center level for more institutional change. In the years following, Mottainai became a regularly played dance during festivals and many temples and centers began to shift to increasingly sustainable behaviors and business practices, sometimes at their own expense.

Passing It On!

Environmental impact statistics are frightening, but true. On an average year, a typical American will produce 56 tons of trash1, waste ~219 lbs of food per year2, and emit 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide through their vehicle3. Without getting into the science of it, global climate change is on the fast track to worst-case scenarios predicted by science, leading to sea-level rise, weather severity, and extinction of critical species. All that said, suddenly mottainai isn't a "nice to have," but instead a "need to have" value.

Use the Word

For parents, mottainai is a staple vocabulary word that should be considered while developing the important cultural identity of your child. Certainly, the shame and disappointment embedded within the words original meaning can and should be omitted, but creating awareness that part of the Japanese American cultural framework includes conservation and sustainability is important.

In describing her perspective on Gen-Z and beyond, Sato stated, "I don't think the word needs to be applied in the same pressurized way like our parents did... it's more about gratitude than shame. I want the next generation to realize that this food came from somewhere, it was cooked by someone and it's mottainai because of these reasons."

Lead by Example

Without hesitation, this was the first thing stated by Miyamoto when describing how parents can instill the value in their children. "Be prideful that you're learning as a family how to do things better and don't get discouraged," she stated. As parents are a primary influence on the development of regular behaviors and values for their children, intentional sustainable living by parents will increase the likelihood of intentional sustainable living by their kin.

Try Stuff and Connect

"Doing something locally is an entrance to an idea," Miyamoto stated while discussing the importance of starting locally within a family. She went on to describe how local actions create the experiences that one can find in common with others, "Once you start gardening, you notice 'oh, so-and-so is gardening,' and you start to realize there's a whole gardening movement. You start being aware of other people because you're doing it."

Whether it's gardening, composting, saying bye-bye to Amazon.com, or properly recycling, doing something creates the local action that not only makes a difference but is a critical piece of a much larger, and much-needed movement.

Mottainai. Perhaps the word of a generation. It's already embedded within our bones; it just takes a small adjustment in our behaviors to make a big difference. What will be your contribution? 

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Click the link to learn more about Nobuko Miyamoto's organization called Great Leap.

References
1"40 Reasons to Think Differently About Your Trash: Facts, Statistics, & More" rubicon.com. 2048-01-2. Retrieved 2020-10-2.
2"Food Waste in America in 2020" rts.com. Retrieved 2020-10-2.
3"Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle" epa.gov. Retrieved 2020-10-2.

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