Most of us are familiar with the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. But did you know that in Japan they can be boiled down to just one succinct term? Over the last few years, the word "mottainai" has become a rallying cry for people concerned about doing their bit to protect the environment.
It hasn’t always been this way. The word, which refers to the feeling of regret at wasting the intrinsic value of a resource or object, had until recently suffered from neglect.
“When Japan experienced the bubble economy at the end of the ’80s, people tended to prioritize monetary achievement over spiritual gratification,” says Tatsuru Yamamoto, a spokesman for the Mottainai Campaign, a Tokyo-based NGO. “At that time, the word 'mottainai' tended to be considered old-fashioned and was forgotten.”
All that changed when Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan green activist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, visited the country in March 2005. “The desire for material possessions has caused a lot of tragedies,” she said in an interview with Mainichi Newspapers at the time. “We have to save and share materials for peace. The 'mottainai' spirit makes this idea tangible, and the mottainai campaign is my lifetime work.”
Maathai vowed to spread “mottainai” across the globe as a watchword for environmental conservation, and became the honorary chairperson of the Mottainai Campaign, which was started after her visit.
The organization currently works with the government, partner NGOs and businesses to spread the concept to the masses. Yamamoto says that they have attracted approximately 70 supporter companies over the last four years, all of which are now implementing measures to reduce, reuse and recycle at work.
The Mottainai Campaign also runs a number of ongoing campaigns to get people doing small things that can have a larger cumulative impact. “Our Doggy Bags Campaign aims for Japanese people to bring back their leftovers with a portable case when eating out,” explains Yamamoto. Eating the leftovers later helps cut down on waste and enables people to save money. The organization is also encouraging people to carry their own chopsticks — no mean feat in a land where the use of disposable chopsticks is so deeply ingrained.
On a larger scale, the Mottainai Campaign contributes to the Green Belt Movement, an NGO founded by Maathai that focuses on getting people to plant trees in Africa and around the world, as well as fostering greater environmental consciousness. To get things moving along in Japan, the soon-to-be-launched Mottainai Forest Project will arrange for a tree to be planted in Kenya for every dollar donated to Maathai or the Green Belt Movement here.
Looking forward, Yamamoto says that the Mottainai Campaign’s keyword for the year is “food.” Along with the Doggy Bags Campaign, the NGO is creating a distribution scheme for packaged foods nearing their expiration date. “The Japanese have an unusual business practice of prohibiting the sale of packaged foods — such as instant noodles, snacks or chocolates — after they have passed two-thirds of the period between production and their use-by date,” he explains. “This turns vast amounts of products into waste.”
The Mottainai Campaign is addressing the problem via one of its supporter companies, which has set up a business-to-business plan called “Eco-Mottainai.com.” This initiative puts foods back into the market by connecting manufacturers with Internet shopping sites where they can trade their products after the two-thirds cut-off date has passed. Although the plan is only in a trial phase, Yamamoto says that the response so far has been “terrific.”
As the world feels the pinch of recession, the "mottainai" spirit seems more relevant than ever. If you’re interested in getting involved, the easiest way is to donate money to one of the Mottainai Campaign’s projects or join their flea markets, held every weekend at various locations in Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures. A separate flea market for children aims to raise environmental awareness among members of the next generation.
For more information about the Mottainai Campaign, see www.mottainai.info/english or email email@example.com. This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today