There are many meanings associated with “mottainai” in Japanese that go far beyond the dictionary definition. Today I’d like to talk about both its basic meaning, as well as the larger significance that it carries into the culture of Japan.
There are some life lessons contained within this word, as well as a path to deeper understanding into the minds of the Japanese people themselves.
Get ready for both a language lesson and a cultural lesson with just this one word!
The Japanese word “mottainai” is can be spelled in several different ways, but the most common one is entirely in hiragana as もったいない (mottainai).
This translates into English as “wasteful” or “a waste” and you can think of a situation where you are at a restaurant with a friend and they order a large meal, but only eat a few bites before declaring that they are full and that the staff can throw the rest away.
You’re thinking to yourself, but you’ve got over half of it left! You should at least get a to-go box and eat it at home later.
What a waste! もったいない！
This word is also used to say that something is wasted on a person.
Many times it refers to people who are in a relationship. For example, you might hear someone talking about how their daughter is this very sweet, very wonderful girl whose boyfriend totally takes her for granted and never spends time with her.
That’s a situation where the mom might say something like:
- kare ni wa mottainai desho!
- (she) is wasted on him!
It also has that feeling of “she is too good for him” and can also be used with other situations such as a person being too good for a company, or for a low position that doesn’t fully utilize their talents and abilities.
Some of the other ways that this word is spelled is primarily with kanji as 勿体無い or kind of a half-kanji, half-hiragana method as 勿体ない.
Keep an eye out on that first kanji too, since either 勿 or 物 can be used and the meaning will be the same.
So now that we have kind of a basic understanding of the word, let’s take a deeper look into the surrounding mindset.
Sometimes a word is not just a word in a language. That’s kind of how もったいない works in Japanese.
Beyond just saying that something is a waste, there is also a cultural value in Japan to fully utilize everything and not create unnecessary waste.
To give an everyday example, we can look at how it is required by law that Japanese people divide up their trash into the different categories such as burnable, glass, plastic, and more.
This is so that things like plastic can be recycled, things like burnables can be burned, and the overall trash that the country makes is reduced and reused as much as possible.
This is totally different from America where we just put all of those things into one bag, and the garbage companies toss them into a large landfill.
Japan does this because they have to.
Their population is about one third that of America, but their country is only 1/26 the size!
Add on to that the fact that not all land is livable in Japan and you can understand how they literally don’t have the physical space to throw all of their trash into the ground, so instead they find ways to reuse as much as possible.
It’s not just about trash though.
Even in olden days in Japan you would keep and use things as much as possible. If you got a kimono, you would have it for many decades.
If there was a tear or a rip, you would patch it up since it could still be used.
It’s pretty different from the consumerism of most of the Western world where people are expected to upgrade things like their wardrobe every couple of years and get rid of old, yet perfectly usable items.
At any rate, the concept of もったいない in Japanese culture is that you should strive to get the full use possible out of everything that you can, because to not do so would be to waste part of the resource.
Careful If You Hear It
If you’re hanging out with a Japanese friend of yours and you hear them use this phrase when you’re about to throw something away, pause for a moment and consider if you should keep it instead.
I’m not saying that you have to use everything up before getting a new one, but just spend a few moments thinking about it and come to a final conclusion if you are ready to part with the item or not.
Something else to keep in mind is that this phrase is a bit of an admonishment.
Typically when a person says something like もったいないなぁ！ for “Ahh, that’s such as waste man!” what they are also saying indirectly is 無駄にしてはいけない (muda ni shite wa ikenai) which means “You shouldn’t waste things.”
We actually have a similar saying in English that you are probably familiar with, “Waste not, want not.”
Again, I’m not here to tell you what to keep and what to get rid of. That’s your business.
I’m just trying to give you another way of understanding this value.
To Keep, Or Not
I’ve been turning into more of a minimalist over the years and have gotten rid of a lot of things that were just taking up room in my place.
But whenever possible, I try to give my stuff away to people who I think will enjoy it and take care of it.
It’s not always possible though, and I do throw some stuff away. Don’t tell anyone!
Questions? Comments? Let me know don’t below!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: