Even inanimate objects are treated politely in Japan. It stems from the Japanese principle of “mottainai” (pronounced “mo-tie-na-ee”), a sort of ecological pillar of their restrained modern lifestyle.
Mottainai’s closest English translation – “waste not, want not” – doesn’t do it justice. The concept loosely stems from an ancient Japanese Shinto theory that objects have souls. This explains why the Japanese can be seen to have an almost homicidal-guilt at defying society’s mottainai law, and have an almost religious mindset about preventing any sort of waste.
There’s no escaping it. It’s in the air you breath here, it’s holy spirit built into every manmade thing in Japan. And it hunts down untrained, exposed Western sinners like me each day, like one of the Ten Commandments mobilized into a hot airborne virus.
The Mottainai virus often takes the form of regular, earthly Japanese manners. Manners that are always on the lookout for a Supersize-Me-minded American to untrain, especially those still practicing U.S. rites such as the gloriously wasteful, 10-minute mid-winter hot shower:
I’ve learned in my home that the Mottainai Mindset gets pounded into the head of the Japanese starting in kindergarten (and in the home: Japanese moms must scold their kids with “Mottainai!” at least 10 times a day, and toys such as my 2-year old daughter’s kitchen set are programmed to sing the word out if any of the toy’s appliances, such as the faucet, are left on too long).
It seeps into your day from the very moment you wake on a freezing winter morning. Not in a centrally-heated bedroom like in the U.S., but in your space-heated tatami room that’s turned into a meat locker overnight.
You begin your winter day with this ecological good deed, but then must deal with the morning Mottanai hangover: your body undergoes a brutal internal thawing, like a Sci-Fi space traveler waking from hypersleep.
And forget about that beloved American-portioned hot shower to thaw out. Taking showers in the morning is unheard of here; Japanese housewives see it as a criminal waste of water, and a pain to clean up (because of the humid climate, you MUST wipe every surface of your shower dry after each use to prevent mold, or so I’m told).
So instead, to warm yourself up, you heat up the remaining nabe broth from last night’s dinner and toss in leftover rice to create a nice breakfast stew, soaking up every last ounce of broth. You try to use your amateur chopstick skills to nab every last grain of rice in your bowl, enacting a lesson pounded into every Japanese child: the meal’s not over until every last tiny grain is gone.
All this Mottainai nit-picking is dreadful so early in the morning, but the activity it forces does start to slowly warm your core. It’s not the hot shower you yearn for, but it’s a start.
Finishing off the rice, you decide to make a fresh pot of it for your still-sleeping family. You remember your Japanese mother-in-law’s mottainai-trick for re-using the water used to wash rice: instead of pouring it out in the sink, you go water your plants on the patio with it:
Mottainai even prevents you from taking care of your morning bathroom business in your standard, American way: the use of normal American-sized wads of toilet paper has been banned in your home since you caused an overflow disaster last year. Plumbing pipes for your house, in typical Tokyo fashion, according to the plumber, are very winding and narrow due to lack of space.
After your done, you then grab your company-paid train pass, and remember that it can only be used on the lowest-fare route to the office. So you can’t add some variation to your monotonous commute, unless you want to pay your own way.
Your typically modest salaryman paycheck makes this an unlikely Mottainai choice, sentencing you to a robotic daily 90-minute commute with all the other salarymen. You feel like Schwarzenegger’s enslaved Conan the Barbarian chained to the eternal Wheel of Pain, only without the payoff of huge muscles and an off-the-charts libido.
Your payoff is the mastery of napping on packed trains. And you find that this infusion of badly-needed sleep propels you. During your weekly cleaning duty at your office that morning – alas, no money is wasted for professional cleaning of office work areas because Japanese employees all possess mottainai manners – you manage to wipe the office furnishings clean without bitching about it.
When you go for your regular afternoon walk with a colleague on a little winding path outside your office, he tells you that long ago the path was a local stream. Tokyo exploded up over little city streams over the decades, and the typical city planning rule here was to superimpose walking paths over them in order to save space.
You enjoy this history lesson, but suddenly decide you want to try something different than this everyday path. He chooses to go back to the office, and you, the freedom-seeking American, turn off it and veer into an interesting-looking alley way. Within 10 minutes your lost in a maze of concrete and buildings, and get back to your office 5 minutes late, drawing the ire of your boss.
You realize that in Japan, there’s always a price for deveating from the Mottainai way.
Still, its an awesome force to consider, and on your way home you’re awestruck by the same Mottainai principle on a more massive scale; a towering, curving Tokyo expressway built over a huge canal to save space:
Halfway through your train ride home at night, you go for a little liquid escape from all this Mottainai pressure. But with your newfound discipline, a few sips is all you need. So at the station kiosk you spring for a little 6 oz. beer instead of the normal 12 oz. can:
You finally get home and immediately join your 5-year old in the family bath. This is the period each day your bound to hear a crack about your Western indulgence with the hot water in the shower.
When you and your family are done bathing, you set your clothes washer to “bathwater” mode and connect a tube from the washer to the inside of the tub. Pumping in the used bathwater to the clothes washer is – at last! – your final Mottainai-move of the day:
Almost ready for bed, you say the hell with all this conservation, and pop open a 16 oz. Asahi brew. As you guzzle it, you glance over at your kid’s little toy kitchen, waiting for it to scold you with “Mottainai!!”.