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Mottainai, a Japanese Concept of Turning Waste into Wisdom

Imagine a perfectly functioning item, perhaps a gadget or a piece of furniture, is casually tossed aside simply because its owner no longer wishes to use it. What words come to mind in response to this act of discard? Is it a resigned sigh, a thoughtful frown, or perhaps a bemused shake of the head?

In Japan, people would say, "Mottainai!"

What is Mottainai?

"Mottainai" is a Japanese term that conveys a sense of regret concerning waste or the squandering of resources. It's a concept deeply rooted in Japanese culture and values, encouraging people to appreciate and make the most of what they have, while also being mindful of the environment and avoiding unnecessary waste.

The term can be traced back to Buddhist teachings that emphasize the importance of using resources wisely and not taking more than one needs. It's often used to remind people not to be wasteful and to treat objects, resources, and even time with respect and consideration.

In a broader sense, "mottainai" can be applied to various aspects of life, including food, belongings, and even opportunities. It encourages a more mindful and sustainable approach to consumption and living. The concept gained international recognition in part due to efforts by environmentalist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, who used "mottainai" as a slogan to promote environmental conservation and responsible resource management.

Mottainai in Daily Life

There are several examples of mottainai in Japan that reflect the concept of minimizing waste and making the most of available resources. Here are a few examples:

Reusing or repurposing waste

Japan is known for its efficient and thoughtful approach to managing resources by repurposing waste. Scientists and businesses are engaged in a competitive pursuit to discover worth in materials that might otherwise be wasted, transforming them into viable and eco-friendly solutions.

The Takachiho Amaterasu Railway is pioneering an innovative approach to fuel by utilizing an unexpected source: lard from ramen and spent tempura cooking oil. Similarly, the concept of upcycling is demonstrated through the reuse of sake kasu, the sediment left behind from sake production. Rather than discarding it, sake kasu finds new life in a multitude of applications including pickles, seasonings, drinks, and even skincare products.

The mottainai concept in resource management is also applicable within households. For instance, the water left from rinsing rice can be used to water plants. Food waste, such as overripe fruits can be turned into tasty snacks. Old clothing can be repurposed as cleaning rags. These are small things that Japanese people do to maximize their resources.

Additionally, Japanese people like to soak in a bathtub (ofuro) daily. The traditional ofuro is made of wood, but a regular bathtub is more common in houses. While it might seem like a lot of water usage, they actually reuse the same water for days. This is possible because the purpose of soaking is relaxation, not hygiene. In fact, they must clean themselves before entering the bath. Family members used the same water until they decided to discard the water and refill the bath, typically once or twice a week.

Thrifting and upcycling clothes

Upcycling clothes has been a thing in Japan since the Edo period. The tradition of recycling old kimono into various functional items is known as "sakiori" (破き織り) or "zanshi" (残し) weaving. This practice originated in rural Japan as a way to make the most of worn-out or outdated kimono fabric. Instead of discarding the old garments, people would carefully take them apart, separate the threads, and then reweave them into new textiles. This process not only extended the lifespan of the fabric but also created unique and textured materials for various purposes.

Old kimono fabric was often woven into rugs or carpets, bags, pouches, accessories like wallets or eyeglass cases, curtains, tablecloths, and even futon covers. Some recycled textiles were also reworked into clothing items like vests, jackets, and coats.

Nowadays, donating or selling clothes to thrift stores is a way to participate in a sustainable fashion. Thrifting contributes to waste reduction by giving new life to items that might otherwise end up in landfills. Instead of always seeking new items, people find value in reusing and repurposing existing resources. This practice is a direct manifestation of the "mottainai" mindset of avoiding unnecessary waste.

Waste management

In Japan, waste sorting is a meticulous process. People are expected to sort their trash into various categories such as burnable, non-burnable, plastic, glass, and more. This careful separation ensures that materials are properly recycled and repurposed, reducing waste and maximizing resource potential. There are waste disposal schedules so you can only throw specific items on the appointed day.

Japanese residents often have to pay a fee when they dispose of large items such as furniture, appliances, or other bulky waste. This practice is part of a waste management system designed to promote responsible waste disposal and encourage recycling while also covering the costs associated with collecting and processing large items.

Mottainai online community

Because of the meticulous waste sorting and the cost of processing it, a new approach to dealing with unused things has emerged in Japan. Instead of throwing items away, many are now happy to give them away or sell them. This change comes from realizing that things can still be useful to others.

You can easily find groups or communities on social media by searching mottainai. It would be better to add your prefecture like Mottainai Tokyo, so you can easily find secondhand items near your home. Some people sell their items at a discounted price, while some gladly hand them for free. The best thing is you don’t need to be afraid of the language barrier because there are mottainai groups for foreigners in Japan too.

If you're a newcomer in Japan seeking secondhand furniture, take a look at this guide.


As we navigate the complexities of modern life, "mottainai" serves as a reminder to treasure what we have and make the most of it. This Japanese philosophy urges us to think twice before discarding something functional, to use resources wisely, and to be mindful of the impact of our actions on the environment. It's a call to appreciate the value in the ordinary and to choose a more responsible and sustainable path. In a world where waste is all too common, embracing "mottainai" can help us create a better future.


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