Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Waste and Regret: Mottainai (もったいない) (Concept Vocabulary)

2013-06-17 14.07.02

When I was asking my friends and acquaintances about the different motivations that result in a clean plate club, I didn’t quite understand some folks mentioning their parents insisted on it when they were younger but now that they are wealthier, they don’t enforce that for their own children. To me, wealth had nothing to do with not being wasteful. I realized that it could be a cultural difference.

There is a term in Japanese called mottainai もったいない. It’s uttered frequently, by everyone: by the rich and the poor. It turned out to be an old Buddhist word meaning “a sense of regret concerning waste”. Perhaps because of Shinto background engrained in the culture, where everything has a soul, not using something to its full extent, is considered culturally unacceptable. It’s not a matter of whether you can afford to waste something or not: throw away something that’s still useable because you are wealthy enough to buy a replacement. I remember getting laughed at by my American room mate in college when she saw me washing my shoe insoles. I didn’t understand (and didn’t care) why she was mocking me. Having lived in the US since then, I now I understand where she was coming from, but at the time, her laughter only signaled to me, that she wasn’t somehow raised well.

The concept of mottainai has influenced my management style as well. For me, it is a matter of respect. If there is a resource, whether it is an object, a concept, time, person, or a talent within a person, I want to respect it, because otherwise it is mottainai, to not realize the full potential. Sure, there are occasions where retiring it is the best option. And when I do, there’s no regrets. For me, it is a matter of how widely I can define “self”: myself, my company, my management team, my people’s time and talents, my partner’s opportunities, my clients’ benefits. If I can extend the concept of myself to extend to my larger community, I hope to respect them, and therefore, not waste them as I would shepherd my own resources.

My friend recently shared with me an article about the scarcity of bluefin tuna, being over-fished for the Japanese market which will pay top dollar for the delicacy. When I told my (wealthy) Japanese acquaintance learned that the bluefin tuna was getting more scarce (hoping to persuade them not to order it, though a sensitive subject because they were paying the bill), I was disappointed by their reaction: “Is that so? Then we should eat a lot while we can.”

The economic law of supply and demand is at work here, and with many economic theories and laws, morality does not necessarily get factored in. Is there room for the concept of mottainai to permeate this law, and the need (especially prevalent in Japan) to prize a rare commodity to such a level to help them flaunt their prestige and wealth? I hope so.

Photo: Breakfast of champions! A seafood bowl and miso soup in Hokkaido. No tuna (bluefin or otherwise) necessary when you have amaebi (sweet shrimp), ikura (salmon roe) and uni (sea urchin).

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This entry was posted on August 3, 2015 by in Buddhism, Culture, Japan, language and tagged , , , .
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