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Mottainai (もったいない, 勿体無い) is a Japanese term meaning "a sense of regret concerning waste when the intrinsic value of an object or resource is not properly utilized."[1] The expression "Mottainai!" can be uttered alone as an exclamation when something useful, such as food or time, is wasted. In addition to its primary sense of "wasteful," the word is also used to mean "impious; irreverent" or "more than one deserves."[2]


In ancient Japanese, "mottainai" had various meanings, including a sense of gratitude mixed with shame for receiving greater favor from a superior than is properly merited by one's station in life. [1]

Although the word mottainai is written in Chinese characters, it was created in Japan and is based on Buddhist philosophy.[citation needed]

One of the earliest appearances of the word "mottainai" is in the book Genpei Jōsuiki (A Record of the Genpei War, ca. 1247).[3]

Mottainai is a compound word, mottai+nai. Mottai (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)," or "entity; body.")

"Mottai" was originally used in the construction "mottai-ga-aru" (勿体+が+有る), literally "having mottai," which referred to a dignified entity. Today, "mottai" is also used in the construction "mottai-buru (勿体振る)," meaning "pretentious" or "giving oneself airs" by assuming more dignity than one truly possesses.

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.

Modern usage and popular culture

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Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, has promoted the concept of mottainai as a term that is roughly equivalent to the English phrase "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." The term is more closely equivalent to the English phrase "What a waste".

Maathai visited Japan for an event related to the Kyoto Protocol in 2005.[4] At this time, she learned this word through coverage of the event in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. She was impressed by the depth of similarity between the Japanese meaning of the word and equivalent concepts in English and Swahili concerning people's responsibility to respect the earth through frugality and conservation. Since learning the word, she has promoted its adoption in the international lexicon as a symbol of the traditional worldwide concept of respect for the environment. She has used the word in numerous speeches on a world lecture tour, and while addressing the UN Commission on the Status of Women, she led the audience in a repeated chant of "Mottainai."

Maathai also told Japanese TV that she tried to find equivalent words to "Mottainai" in other languages so as to spread the concept all over the world, but in vain. Therefore, she is promoting the use of the word "Mottainai" as an international expression.

Japanese singer/songwriter Masashi Sada has also promoted this concept, and created the song "MOTTAINAI" to revitalize the spirit of "Mottainai" in Japan. The song was played on Everybody's song (みんなのうた minna-no-uta?), a children's public television program on NHK TV, in April and May 2007 to raise children's awareness of resource conservation.

A news article on NPR's Morning Edition on 8 October 2007 discusses "Mottainai Grandma," a children's book by Moriko Shinju.

In the 2009 Playstation 3 game Trash Panic, valuable items which must be preserved are called "Mottainai", and in contrast the common trash in the game, they must be dealt with as a valuable item, instead of compacted or destroyed.

Actual food waste in Japan

Japan's agricultural ministry estimates that 23 million tons of food was discarded in 2007, about ¥11 trillion ($120 billion) worth, which is the monetary equivalent of Japan's annual agricultural output. Moreover, it cost ¥2 trillion ($21 billion) to process that waste.[5].

See also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Daijirin Japanese dictionary 2nd ed. (Japanese)
  2. Masuda, K: "Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary," page 1139. Kenkyusha Ltd., 1974
  3. This early use of the word appears in a story about Yoshitsune in the Battle of Yashima. On horseback, Yoshitsune dropped his bow into the sea. A vassal cried out, "Don't pick up the bow, let it be!", but he picked it up while being pursued by the enemy Taira clan. After the battle was over, the vassal used the word mottainai in admonishing Yoshitsune that he should have considered his own life more valuable than even a worthy bow. Yoshitsune retorted that if the enemy saw that inferior bow, it would have disgraced the Genji clan. Referencing site in Japanese: 1; "26 Historical place of Yoshitsune dropped the bow"(26弓流しの跡), 2; 義経の弓流しの跡
  4. PDF Perspectives of language: cultural differences and universality in Japanese M Sasaki - Cultural Diversity and TransversalValues: East–West Dialogue … -
  5. "Japan loves wasting food". The Japan Times. March 1, 2009. Archived from the original on June 30, 2012. 

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