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What is Mottainai...?

"Mottainai" became very famous word... but what does it really mean?

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This will be a long post... because I don’t even know if I can summarize my understanding of this word (concept) in English. I believe many Japanese have given up on translating this word. So did I many times in the past. However, let me keep trying.

It is the word, “Mottainai”.

Mottainai is one of the extremely difficult words to explain in non-Japanese language following “Wabi-Sabi”. I briefly explained what “Mottainai” is for us in the Sashiko Journey 63 (Title: Boro’s Spirit…and Mottainai?), it was more like a reaction to the sad feedbacks I received to a question of “What is the best thread for Sashiko” - and many answered to the question saying “In the spirit of Boro and Mottainai, use whatever you have already.”

I summarized the word Mottainai as a word for “Too good to waste”. It is correct. However, not sufficient. Please let me share how “Mottainai” became the English word, and how we used the word in Japan.

Introduction of “Mottainai” to the world

First, let me start how the “Mottainai” became so famous in non-Japanese language “as is” instead of applying something similar in their own language.

The mother of “The word Mottainai” outside of Japan is Ms.Wangarĩ Muta Maathai (a renowned Kenyan social, environmental and political activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize in Environment/Sustainability concerns).

When she visited Japan, she learned the word “Mottainai” as “wasteful”. After learning the meaning of the words & stories related to Mottainai, she came to realize that there are no (English) words to express the respect to Nature and A matter that Japanese have been paying to with the word Mottainai. She became an advocate of the word “Mottainai”, and decided to use the word “Mottainai” as is to express the 4 concepts: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Respect.

Probably, this “Reduce, Reuse & Recycle” is a well known understanding of Mottainai in an environmental/sustainable issue. Therefore, people use Mottainai as a solution to sustainable/recycle fashion. Their understanding is correct, but again, not sufficient. I believe the most important concept of Mottainai is: Respect.

Then, a question will be “What are we respecting?”

Mottainai as a Japanese Wisdo

Let’s check the Japanese‐language dictionary to see how the Japanese define(d) the word “Mottainai” before Ms.Wangari’s wonderful interpretation & introduction.

(It is already too difficult for me to translate these definitions… but let me try my best. I will try the direct translation mostly - not interpretation - so that I can add my explanation later on.

Mottainai (もったいない) is…

  1. Wasteful. Regret feeling of wasting. Leaving something valuable untouched.
    1. ex). It is wasteful (regretful) to throw it away.
    2. ex.)  He is too good not to be “used (hired/recruited/promoted)”.
  2. Something too much (too good/too sophisticated/too valuable) for one’s status.
    1. ex) It is too much of a compliment for me.
  3. Inconvenience. Unforgivable. Preposterous.
    1. Used in proverb and old saying - (It was simply impossible to translate the Japanese old-saying within my ability… sorry.)
  1. 有用なのにそのままにしておいたり、むだにしてしまったりするのが惜しい。「捨てるのは―・い」「使わないでおくには―・い人物」
  2. 身に過ぎておそれ多い。かたじけない。「―・いおほめのお言葉」
  3. 不都合である。ふとどきである。もってのほかである。

The meaning (1) is the most common as Ms.Wangarĩ referred: Wasteful (Regretful to waste). Even in this one definition, I hope I can tell you that the word has a sense of respect to Nature & a Matter. Mottainai is not only for the “recycling materials”, but also something “untouched” that we have not found the truth (Real Nature) yet. Therefore, the word “wasteful” is not 100% fulfilling the meaning of “Mottainai”.

*To avoid confusion, here is the summarize of Real Nature: that Japanese thought we could never find Real Nature in their ordinary. Please keep reading.

The meaning (2) was more common in my grandparents’ generation (The 1930’s to The 1940’s). The Japanese have a tendency to lower themselves. Some call it “humble”. Others call it ”obsequious”. In my childhood, I have heard phrases with “Mottainai” a lot when my family pays compensation to the artisans. The artisans, “Oh, this is too much for me (it doesn’t mean that they do not accept the cash. The amount is mostly agreed before the work, but it was more customized to say so to be polite (people expect reading between lines each other)”.

Since I am more familiar with the second meaning (lowering), when I have to translate the word “Mottainai” in one word, I say it is “Too Good to Waste” instead of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Respect”. Both of the translations are correct, but not sufficient.

You may be surprised at the 3rd definition. Inconvenience. Unforgivable. Preposterous. Really…? We do not use the word “Mottainai” for the 3rd meaning so often in today’s society. However, it is important to understand that the word has the sense of these 3 senses - Inconvenience. Unforgivable. Preposterous. In order to explain how these 3 senses are part of the word, I need to explain the word-origin (etymology) of Mottainai.

First, Mottainai can be separated into 2 sections.

  • 1st - Mottai
  • 2nd- Nai.

So it is “Mottai - Nai” in the accurate description.

“Mottai” itself is kind of an old word that we do not use in today’s society so often (I can think of only 1 example in general usage in today’s society). “Mottai” has a Kanji character “勿体”, but many Japanese use “mottainai” without Kanji - just Hiragana “もったい”.

There are many interpretations of this “Mottai”, but in original form, it indicated the ”What it should be” in a matter/element. An essence (or real nature) of the matter.

The sound “Nai” is simply a denying word similar to “Not” in English.

Therefore, when we consider the word origin, Mottainai means the “Not Real Nature of the matter”.

I know I am confusing you.

It doesn’t make sense at all if the word is describing the fact that there is no real nature of the matter. In fact, you may think the word Mottainai is the opposite. Because there is the Real Nature in the word Mottainai as wasteful, the word became so meaningful.

I understand your confusion. I am still confused as well.

However, let me continue with adding my own interpretation to make it more understandable. “Not Real Nature of the matter” indicates “us” as human. So I understand more that the Japanese tried to describe the situation of “We do not understand the real nature of matter” as using “Mottainai” instead of there is no Real Nature in the matter.

However, the Japanese also believed that there is no Real Nature in the matter back then. To explain it deeper, I would also need to introduce that the “Mottainai” was the word in Buddhism.

I will not go into deep with Buddhism Teaching because I do not think I am qualified to do so, but please let me share the 2 essential elements in Buddhism - which are “Ku - 空 - Emptiness” and “Rinne - 輪廻 - Reincarnation”.

Let me assume that Word Origin and Buddhism Concepts are mixed together to describe the word “Mottainai” - then we can find the word starts shaping the meaning of the word itself.

Ku (空) is translated “Emptiness” in English, but it doesn’t mean “Nothing” in there. There is something there, but only phenomenon - there are NOT the elements (Real Nature of the matter).


This explains why it is so difficult to translate the word Mottainai. The act of explaining the phenomena is leading us to try to get the element. We are all “trying to explain with words”. However, the more we explain the phenomena, the more we lose the truth in it. Some say that the language only describes phenomena but never the “essence” of a matter. (This is what Buddhism/Zen teaches us - therefore, we have a word saying 不立文字 - No truth can be explained by words, by just practice).

As a vey rough summary, Ku indicates below.

“Everything seems to be existing by itself. However, without the relationship to the other elements, it cannot be found (We can understand the Real Nature only in continuation.”

Next, 輪廻 - Reincarnation is a bit easier to explain.

The word Reincarnation itself means the actual “Revival” in many situations. Wikipedia defines that “Reincarnation is the philosophical or religious belief that the non-physical essence of a living being starts a new life in a different physical form or body after biological death.”

In Buddhism, Reincarnation means that everything has a “cause” and therefore “result”. All of the “facts” have a reason(origin) that it occurred(started).

As a rough summary, Rinne indicates that Every Element is connected (related to each other).

With summarizing (Interpreting) Ku and Rinne, it is safe to say that nothing can exist without others (relation/connection to the others). Our existence itself has no Real Nature, and therefore we have to appreciate the fact that life is “given” by others.

Do you see that the concept of “No-Real Nature (Mottai-Nai)” came back here. Yes, we are talking about Mottainai - not the Buddhist teaching.

With this interpretation, we can probably understand the 3rd description of Japanese dictionary a little better.

Inconvenience. Unforgivable. Preposterous.

These are the definitions describing ourselves (human beings) who don't understand what Buddhism/Nature teach them. It is an inconvenience/Unforgivable/Preposterous understanding (behavior) to Buddha and 8 million Spirits.

I believe, the old Japanese used the word Mottainai to advise ourselves that we are alive thanks to others over “Ku” and “Rinne”, and appreciation and regretful (wasteful) to what we have & who we are is the fundamental of life.

Please understand that the description about Buddhism above is purely my personal interpretation based on my reading history. I am not educated enough to discuss this issue. There are, probably, misunderstandings & incorrect interpretations.

However, the reason I tried to explain my understanding of Buddhism and Mottainai is that the word itself has a long history of Japanese people who lived in Buddhism & Animism. It is not a word that someone can describe in one sentence so easily by saying “Recycle” or “Ecology”. Therefore, Ms.Wangarĩ used the word itself without translating it to other words.

A statement: “Mottainai is about Reduce, Reuse & Recycle. Therefore, we have to reuse everything we have for the environment.” is very true. However, it isn’t enough in comparison to the understanding of the word by Japanese who actually lived with the word back in the old days.

Many Japanese say that it is impossible to translate the word “Mottainai” fully to non-Japanese language. I agree with them. It was a very agonizing moment to describe like above with spending so much time (I believe it was also an agonizing moment for you to read).

However, it was necessary for me to try.

Mottainai affects the mindset of Sashiko very deeply.

Sashiko and Mottainai
A sample of Boro with Layers of Sashiko Stitching - An ultimate result of Mottainai

Many people understand that Sashiko is a technique to reuse & recycle the fabric. Therefore, they think the sense of “Mottainai” comes with Sashiko as a materialistic way to the sustainable environment (fashion). It is true, but not sufficient.

Sashiko and Mottainai are strongly connected. However, the bridge connecting 2 words is not much “recycling”. It is the “appreciation” to something invisible (phenomena) throughout something visible (Fabric).

Therefore, my definition of Sashiko is “a hand-stitching practice to appreciate the fabric”.

Therefore, I share the importance of process (of appreciating) rather than how it looks as a stitching result.

I am sure that the Japanese use the word “Mottainai” for the well-known meanings such as “It is Mottainai because this small piece of fabric can be used for another piece.” and “A piece of this good fabric is too good to waste.” That’s how we can have an interesting story of “hoarding issue of keeping the fabric which can wrap 3 soybeans”.

However, at the same time, for the Japanese who naturally lived with Buddhism and Animism, Mottainai meant something more than wasteful - appreciation to the day they survived which is a miracle in a sense.


I am very much aware that I would need to keep revising this article. However, I hope it helps you to understand what “Mottainai” is for us even a little bit.

Thank you for your support.

I have spent quite a lot of time to write this article. Without your support, I wouldn’t be able to do.

*This is side note, but may be interesting for you. The most famous Japanese word, “Arigatou” - ありがとう - Thank you - has a similar root as Mottainai. The Arigatou is written with Kanji like this. 有難う。

有 = Existing (There is)

難う = Difficult (Not ordinary).

So, the Japanese Arigatou (Thank you) is the word to appreciate the difficulty of existing (miracle). This is also strongly connected to the word “Mottainai”, I believe.