You don’t have to be a Japanophile like me to be familiarized with the notion of Mottainai. Take a brief trip to Japan and observe the culture, and you’ll become acquainted with the expression that’s deeply embedded in the way of life there. Depending on the context, you’ll hear mottainai as either the admonition “don’t waste” or the assertion “too precious to waste,” when, say, you spill rice.
In recent times, conservationists such as Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai have applied that phrase to inspire humankind to reduce, repurpose, reuse, and recycle. “If we are wise like nature, we would practise the mottainai spirit. The earth practises mottainai. It reuses and recycles. We even get recycled when we die. We go back into the soil,” Maathai has said.
What the Japanese Can Teach Us About Cleanliness
Over in Japan, tidying up is a bee on the bonnet. Cleanliness is a moral virtue, and cleaning is an act of spiritual practice—indeed, a means to purify the soul. In Shinto, good spirits can dwell in clean environments, and you’ll frequently observe Japanese people cleaning their homes and offices.
Ever since the post-war reconstruction, the Japanese have also encouraged upkeep and conservation. They tend to make the most of limited resources and avoid wastefulness. Their culture dissuades the idea of trashing things.
Moreover, the concept of animism in Shinto encourages reverence for objects—from teapots to katana. There’s even an old Japanese parable about a spirit ghost named “Mottainai Obake” who haunts children who treat things wastefully.
Inner Peace Starts with the Cleanness of Our Inner and Outer World.
Knackered for the physical space, the Japanese are devoted to efficient household goods and gift-giving (albeit with lavish gift-wrapping.) Their zeal for getting organized has led to a cottage industry of clutter counselors and storage experts who’re celebrated in television shows and consumer magazines as out-and-out innovators.
In this cultural context, Nagisa Tatsumi’s 2003 book Suteru Gijyutsu (“The Art of Throwing Away”) caused a national sensation with its bold proposal. Tatsumi challenged the Japanese to rethink their attitude to possessing things and to have the courage and conviction to get rid of all the stuff they really don’t need.
Tatsumi goaded people to let go of the things that are tying them down:
Possessing things is not good in itself. We have to consider whether they’re necessary, whether they’re used. And if something’s unnecessary, we should get rid of it. This is the essence of the Art of Discarding. Once you appreciate that you don’t have to keep what’s unnecessary, you’ll be better able to use what is necessary with proper care.
Tatsumi’s book sold 1 million copies in six months and quickly got translated into Korean and Chinese. Indeed, it was the book that inspired Marie Kondo, the reigning queen of decluttering.
Tatsumi’s Book Inspired the Current Obsession with Decluttering
In Suteru Gijyutsu, Tatsumi cheerfully explores the many psychological snags that make people reluctant to discard things.
Take the “keep it for now” syndrome, such as with the advertising leaflets that used to be inserted in the weekend newspaper. Tatsumi advises, “You think, ‘There may be something on sale that I might find useful. But I am too busy to go through them now. So I am going to keep them for now and look at them later.'” That mindset merely contributes to the piles of garbage.
Tatsumi’s message is simple yet profound. She guardedly reminds readers of the stark reality that everything is a waste. No matter what you buy, no matter how much you use it, no matter how much you love it, no matter if you keep it or recycle it or donate it … it’s still waste. It will still end up in a landfill someday. By learning to discard, you will reclaim space, free yourself from “accumulation syndrome,” and pave the way to rediscovering joy and purpose in a less-cluttered life.
Idea for Impact: Take back control, gain space, free yourself from “accumulation syndrome,” and find new joy and purpose in your less-cluttered life Take Tatsumi’s motto to heart: “If you have it, use it. If you don’t use it, don’t have it.”