What a waste! - The concept of Mottainai

For years, western countries were inspired by Japanese concepts and beliefs. Zen-Buddhism served as a basis for minimalistic design; Kaizen pushes companies to a never ending optimization, and the bento box influenced us at Goodpatch to structure our approach to project work. Of course, everyone knows the ideas of Marie Kondo.

Another Japanese concept that could inspire us to reduce our impact on the planet is Mottainai. When we look at how to do better, how to save the planet, and ultimately humanity, we tend to look for solutions through new technologies and revolutionary futuristic concepts.
Mottainai, on the contrary, draws from a long history and has been deeply rooted in Japanese culture for hundreds of years.

Tomioka Eisen (1900s) - Airing clothes

What is Mottainai, and why does it matter?

Mottai and nai each have their meaning. "Mottai'' refers to the Buddhist word that means the essence of things and can be applied to everything in our physical world. "-nai" for its part expresses negation. Combined, Mottainai becomes an expression of sadness over the loss of the link between two entities, living and non-living. In other words, by focusing on the essence of things, people should look beyond the throwaway culture and refer to the value a product has to them.

A famous spokeswoman of the concept was Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan professor, environmental activist, and politician. For her, the successful empowerment of women was the basis for healthy ecological politics. That is why she fought for women's rights for all of her life and eventually won the Nobel prize.

Maathai visited Japan in 2005 and learned about the 3R (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) concept. During that time, she also came across Mottainai and was deeply impressed. For her, it expresses much more than a single word. The additional value adds to the existing concept of 3R - a "fourth R" for respect goes beyond a simple expression. Maathai understood that Mottainai goes beyond the current concepts but pays respect to what we eat, what we consume, and the things from our daily life.

The main idea to respect the worth of things we use in our daily life can be seen in Japan up to this day. Taking care of things and repairing them rather than carelessly throwing them away is common sense. "Wabi-Sabi," another aesthetic concept from Japan, adapts this way of thinking by putting value into the imperfectness of things. Signs of time are the true beauty of a product.

Wangari Maathai in Japan

Learning from Japan

With the worldwide aspiration to live an environmentally friendly way of life, "Mottainai" gained popularity amongst environmental activists. The idea of reducing waste is part of the Japanese government's spirit leading towards the 3R initiative at the G8 summit in 2005 with the aim "to shift the global consumption and production patterns towards building a sound-material-cycle society."

Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi stated: "It may be difficult to translate the word into English, French, German, or other languages, but I believe we can just use the Japanese word mottainai."

Of course, at some point, even when carefully treated, some things will break down and become useless. But also here, the Japanese don't look at the fact that the product is broken or old, but rather are thankful for the work it did during its lifespan.

"Otsukaresama -thank you for your hard work."

The question that remains open is:

  • How can we use the concept of Mottainai to adapt the design process to turn value for humans into value for the planet?

Peter Obradovic left his heart in Tokyo and is a subculture enthusiast. For Goodpatch, he works as a content creator to ensure that people get insights into what we do and how we work. Want to get in touch? Check out our LinkedIn page to see what's going on at Goodpatch.

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Written by

Peter Obradović


Peter Obradović


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