"A situation in which something still usable is thrown away,
something dispensable is used, or someone who can still work
has not yet displayed his or her ability."
(Shogakkan's Kokugo Daijiten.).
It is not easy to translate mottainai into English.
There is a story about translating the word into English. When
officials of the former Environment Agency explained the meaning
of mottainai to Morris Strong, secretary general of the Earth
Summit conference in 1992, Strong suggested, after a little
thought, that "sophisticated modesty" might be an appropriate
translation, given its spirit.
Mottainai is different from "kechi" (stingy). Mottainai fully
recognizes the value, ability or cultural nature inherent in
things. It contains a strong message that things should not be
wasted. I remember a number of occasions in my childhood when
I was scolded by my parents with "mottainai!" for my wastefulness.
The word was so strongly instilled in me that I flinched every
time my parents uttered the word.
The concept of mottainai was deeply rooted in the everyday life
of ordinary Japanese people during the Edo period (1603-1868).
Cotton kimono were washed and dyed time and again until they were
worn out. After the clothes shrank from repeated washing, they
were used to make clothes for children. When they were worn out,
they were used as washcloths or mats. When they became tattered,
they were burned, and the ash was spread over the vegetable fields.
The ash helped the to promote new life.
It was a perfect recycling society, nothing was wasted. This
spirit was more or less maintained in Japan until the end of
World War II.
We cannot blame the disruption of the tradition merely on the
influence of U.S. culture, which extols mass production and mass
Let us return to the issue of leftover food.
The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry recently conducted
a survey on 1,000 households and 3,560 business operators,
including restaurants, about food wastage. The amount of food
discarded was highest at wedding receptions, at 23.9 percent,
which far outnumbered 7.7 percent at households and 3.6 percent
The food recycling law requires food-processing and
food-distribution companies, restaurants and other businesses,
which potentially discard excess food, to recycle at least 20
percent of food destined for garbage dumps.
We must keep it in mind that more than half of the food consumed
in this country is imported. Japan annually imports 2.7 million
tons of grain, or 73 percent of the national requirement.
The country also relies on imports for 20 percent of its
vegetables and 50 percent of its meat and fruit products. A large
quantity of quality seafood products are also imported. However,
the supply of imported food supplies is inextricably linked to a
number of global environmental problems.
Firstly, by importing food we are exhausting foreign countries'
valuable water resources.
The production of 1 ton of wheat requires 1,000 tons of fresh
water. This equates to Japan, despite having plentiful reserves
of fresh water, importing 27 billion tons of water from the United
States and developing countries in Asia. Mathematically, the volume
of water is equivalent to the volume of water flowing down the
Shinanogawa river, the nation's longest river, in two years.
Effective use of that amount of water would produce food for about
480 million people. That would save millions of children from
hunger and prevent international disputes over water rights.
Japan, for its part, can no longer remain complacent about food
supplies from the viewpoint of national security, in case food
imports are disrupted, or if food prices rise dramatically. We must
try to increase our food production to a level approaching
Germany, which was isolated and experienced severe food shortages
during the two world wars in the 20th century, is very conscious
of food supplies. It is said that 20 percent of the vegetables
Germans eat at home are grown in their backyards.
Japan can learn from Germany in this respect.
How many people could be saved and how well could food resources
be distributed, if Japan economized on food consumption?
Mottainai has a deep meaning: It not only teaches us the importance
of not wasting food, both at home and throughout the country, but
also prompts us to think of what goes on in other parts of the world.
Talk of food leftovers may spoil the festive mood of wedding
receptions, but I am positive that this bitter pill will turn out
to be nourishment for people in the future.