As you may know, Japan has lower per capita carbon emission than any Western European country. For that reason, I asked my friend, Sean Sakamoto, who recently moved to Japan and who blogs at I’d Rather Be In Japan, to check in with us every so often. I thought we might be able to learn a little something about “happier planet, happlier people” lifestyles from Sean’s experience there.
Here is Sean’s latest dispatch:
If you’ve ever studied a second language, you know that one of the most interesting aspects is seeing how culture is reflected in the words that are used. One of the first words I learned in Japan is a great example.
My first day at work, I was writing something on a piece of paper and I made a mistake. I reached for a new piece to start over, and my coworker suggested I just cross out my mistake and keep using the same piece.
“Mottainai,” he said. I cocked my head in my standard look of “I don’t know what that means” and he explained that
“mottainai” means “don’t waste.” It became a word I heard many times, in many situations.
In the past year, I’ve learned that “mottainai” does in fact mean ‘don’t waste’ but it also means more than that. There is the sense that it is a genuine shame to waste something. This concept is not entirely new to me.
When I was a kid, growing up in the ’70s in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I was scolded if I ever wasted something. I remember that throwing something out that still had use was wasteful, but it was also just plain wrong.
We used a cloth to clean the table instead of tearing off sheets of paper towel. We never ate off paper plates. One obvious reason for this was because we didn’t have the money to waste on disposable items or brand new stuff all the time. But it went beyond saving money. It was simply wrong to be wasteful.
When my sneakers got old and faded, my mom died the outside to make them look new again. My mom even bought me pants that were too long, sewed cuffs into them, and then let them down as I grew. It saved money, but I had white circles where the creases has been. There were two sides to this, of course. I also got teased at school for having ‘creased pants.’ Not everyone thought it was so great to not waste and save money.
When I got a family of my own, I forgot some of what my mother taught me about not wasting. I got used to the convenience of using something once and tossing it out. My values shifted. It started to feel cleaner, more hygienic, and more modern, to use disposable products. I wanted the latest, and newest, of everything.
Now I’m living in rural Japan on a much smaller salary than I had when I lived in New York. The emphasis on not being wasteful is nostalgic, and it’s also practical.
Now, when I hear the words, “mottainai” I feel a sense of nostalgia. It’s like I have an old friend back, this value I grew up with, that it’s good to make something last longer, to get more use of the things I have, and to be more creative. I like being frugal again. I like it that reusing stuff and saying ‘mottainai’ is the trump card in most situations. I’m glad my son is learning this too. That said, I won’t be creasing his pants.