The Japanese Concept of “Mottainai”
There are several ubiquitous words in Japanese that are great culture studies. One of the most important is the concept of “mottainai”. Mottainai represents the concepts of efficiency, modesty, and practicality, all rolled into a playful word with good cadence. It is always used with emphasis to convey shock. Indirectly it translates to “Oh no! What a waste!” and is explicitly used when something of value is squandered.
All disciplines related to Japan in academia emphasize the fact that the country is an isolated island that was closed to foreign influence for hundreds of years. The theory is that historical isolation has precipitated a homogenous, harmonious civil society, working together for the common good. Since population density has been high for hundreds or thousands of years, resources have always been limited, resulting in a culture of efficiency. The minimalist movement in Japan (Marie Kondo et al) is not a modern concept, it is cultural.
Additionally, Japan has two “religions” blended together, or rather two exclusive yet compatible approaches to interacting with the world. The first is the indiginous animistic Shinto belief that energy and consciousness flow through everything, everything is holy, and purity is of primary importance. The second is the Buddhist teachings of respect for others and for life, honesty and humility, and transcendence to emotional tranquility through the release of desire and expectation. In aggregate these teachings on life have created a culture of honesty, humility, and respect. (Perhaps counterintuitive, but nationalism and white lies are common however.)
Thousands of years of history are important, but the destruction of the country caused by earthquakes and decades of war in the first half of the 20th century resulted in an even further resource-starved mentality. Very similar to the ingrained frugality that came out of the Great Depression in the United States, post WWII Japan has been fixated on the efficient consumption of natural resources. There were bubbly periods in the 1970’s and 1990’s, but deflation corrected that with a vengeance.
“Mottainai” embodies all of this history and culture by calling out when something of value is wasted. A factory production run was not monitored and raw materials were wasted–”mottainai!” A delicious and desirable food ingredient spoiled when mishandled or the power went out–”mottainai!” A brief opportunity to do something you really want to do is barely missed due to timing–”mottainai!” Salmon or trout streams are dammed and can no longer be fished–”mottainai!” You realize too late that you’ve been paying for two identical insurance policies and can’t get either refunded–”mottainai!” This term is heard so often in Japan it is nuts.
The concept of mottainai also affects us at Nakamoto Forestry in our forestry management, millwork practices, and our product lineup. The Nakamoto family forests are small, as are most individual timber holdings throughout Japan. (The country is 69% forested and has a huuuuge timber industry, but due to high per capita consumption of wood it is a net importer of lumber.) Forestry practices are constantly going through process improvements and have never reached the industrial scale as in North America. Sections are planned and planted, limbed and thinned, and then harvested by inhouse staff. Log selection and millwork are planned for best yield, and off-grade logs are sold into the biofuel market. Our product lines are all based on wholesome natural materials that do not need maintenance. (See the fantastic statistics at the bottom of our Sustainability page here)
We only live once and our time is limited. We are all in this story together as society. Make the most of everything you do morning to evening, otherwise it’s sooo mottainai!
For more on the topic of Mottainai, check out this article by BBC.
Photography by Aaron Davis
Thank you so much for this post, story and sentiment! The piece is a great cultural reflection and lens into a facet of Japanese life! I am the co-founder of a small scale wood products manufacturing company in the US and it is heartening to read more about how forestry and wood haest is approached in Japan. Thanks again!