Activism Food Lifestyle Parenthood Tokyo

Mottainai: How a Japanese expression of regret grew into a global movement to respect the environment

My first taste of a language has always been through food. 

“Arroz con leche, me quiero casar con una señorita de Portugal…” 

These playful lyrics and its accompanying melody bring back memories of a childhood in my beloved Bolivia. I can still taste the warm, comforting canela, pasas, and sweetened milk and feel how the “Rs” rolled fluidly off my tongue as a toddler, a talent I later lost after returning to the States. Later, while growing up in Ohio, we’d take an annual road trip to Philadelphia where we’d visit the big Sicilian family and share big family meals together at my grandparents’ old place, a majestic house with wooden shingles, mossy ponds, and a kitchen that always smelled of pine, garlic, and grape juice. Few of us in the house actually spoke Italian, but we knew the names of all the ingredients and aromatic dishes that would adorn the table — manicotti, spaghetti, ravioli, rotini, Pecorino-Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, penne, and pesto!

Fast forward to Tokyo, 2017, and my first foray into the Japanese lexicon of food — tako, toro, unagi, meguro, soba, yakitori, tempura, gohan, gyoza, rame — the daily Japanese menu revolved routinely from my lips like the constant spiral of conveyor belt sushi. I ate them up with a slurp of shoyu and sake before I could converse with my neighbors, but at least the food brought us together. 

Food, it was our language. Food, like words, holds meaning. Our plate can tell a story and take us on an evolving, joyous journey of the senses. It starts with the scent, and then the sight (they say the Japanese eat with their eyes) and moves to the mouth and the feel and taste on the tongue. If you enquire enough, food can reveal stories from its past, of where it came from, of the farmers who planted the seeds and the cooks who carefully prepared it, and the mindful actions each of us can take not to waste. Just like food has a past, it also has a future — like our children — and we have the responsibility of taking it in the right direction.

And that brings me to one of my most cherished Japanese concepts —“mottainai.” Mottainai is one of those words that doesn’t directly translate into any other language. It has been said that the simplest interpretation could be the expression, “what a waste!” It is that feeling of regret you have when something is wasted. Or when food is thrown away. Or when something beautiful or useful breaks, and instead of fixing it, it ends up lost forever in a landfill. It’s that frustrating feeling of injustice when you know that one-third of all food produced in the world (approximately 1.3 billion tonnes) is lost or wasted every year, while more than 800 million people are undernourished. It’s also the motivation to act and pave a sustainable path. Thus, the concept of mottainai has evolved from regret to a call to action echoing the more modern mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” with an added fourth “R” — “respect.”

The Lexicon of Food

I first learned about the concept of “mottainai” sometime in 2017 while participating in The Future Food Lexicon Lab, a collaboration of The Lexicon and The Future Food Institute in Italy, through which my husband and I first met (a food love story for another time!).

Julien and I had just moved to Tokyo, and this master class was a fun opportunity to connect with old and new friends, explore storytelling and art, and hopefully tackle some of our food system’s greatest challenges. I started by collecting Japanese concepts and food stories in Japan and then brought them to Italy to turn them into “information artworks.” Our final artworks were then shown at the exhibit “People, Practice, Power,” which had the goal of illustrating the role people can play in building more resilient, participatory food systems. 

Through my interviews in Japan, emerged three enlightening Japanese concepts: “megumi jyunkan nōhō” (natural ecosystem farming), “wabi-sabi” (the beauty of imperfection), and “mottainai.” The loose definition of “mottainai,” which I had hand written in my artwork, reveals another layer of meaning, as well as a message of hope and empowerment:

Mottainai: “A Japanese approach to the concept of food waste, which transforms the feeling of regret into the salvaging and enjoyment of “oishii” (good) food.”

lexicon of food
“Mottainai” exhibited by The Lexicon Lab at G7 in Bergamo, Italy.

The Mottainai Action Project

While perusing the polished, flawless foods perfectly presented in the Tokyo markets, I’ve often wondered about the imperfect “wabi-sabi” fruit, veggies and fish that were not being sold. Where did they go? Were they thrown away? How could we prevent good food from being wasted? Through asking these questions, I learned of the massive amount of food waste at the fish market and of “The Mottainai Action Project,” a series of pop-up restaurants started by Akihro Date-san that “serve food that would have otherwise been thrown away.”

“The huge waste from the fish market moved me to do something to help people understand the situation,” Date-san told me at Uoharu, one of the restaurants. “I get the fresh ‘imperfect’ fish from the market each day, and I find the best way to prepare all parts to reduce waste,” added the head chef Yuta-san as he gutted a fish in the kitchen. I watched him cook the fish, witnessing first-hand the care he took to use every possible part of the fish, from the skin to the bones, so as not to waste anything. I stayed for a while and savored the stew of “fish waste” and was blown away by all the incredible flavors. “That is the spirit of ‘mottainai,’” he said, smiling.

Mottainai Grandma

© MOTTAINAI GRANDMA PROJECT

My next dive into the concept of Mottainai came after Hola Tomorrow’s Vera introduced me to Kyoko Nagano at a Japanese cooking class. Kyoko soon became my personal guide to Japanese culture, introducing me to traditional crafts, concepts and cuisine through her various projects, which include working with Mariko Shinju, the author and illustrator of the multilingual children’s book and a new cartoon series called “Mottainai Grandma.”

“Mottainai” is often associated with Japanese mothers and grandmothers who will scold the children at mealtime, not only so they will finish their food, but so they learn to share and have a grateful heart. Mariko herself recalls saying “mottainai” to her young son when he had left food on his plate. “What is mottainai, Mom?” he once asked her innocently. 

“Although she grew up hearing her mother and grandmother say “mottainai,” she couldn’t find the right words to explain what it meant. It was just something that was said to express disappointment at a waste of food or other things. So instead, she picked up a pen and began to draw.

What emerged on the page was the story of “Mottainai Grandma”, a wise and funky old woman who takes a young boy on a journey to show him the virtues of mindful consumption.”

This July, I had the honor of interviewing Mariko and publishing a feature story for The Japan Times about her exciting storytelling journey and the importance of reducing waste to ensure a better future for our children and the environment.

© MOTTAINAI GRANDMA PROJECT

According to the United Nations, every year, one third of global food production is wasted and roughly 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Mariko realized that by teaching children about the importance of being mindful of waste and respecting their surroundings, perhaps it could have a positive impact, however small, on the environment.

“All lives are connected and each one of them is precious,” Shinju told me. “If we have a sharing mindset instead of being selfish, we can make this world a better place with the heart of mottainai. It is about being filled with gratitude, kindness, affection and respect for the people who made (the item).”

Since 2004, Mariko’s books have sold more than 1 million copies, and this June, the “Mottainai Grandma” anime series was released for free on its website and YouTube in six languages:  Japanese, English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Hindi. 

The series of five-minute episodes are adapted from four  of her books: “Mottainai Grandma,” “Mottainai Grandma: Let’s Eat with Gratitude,” “Mottainai Grandma Goes to Magic Land” and “Mottainai Grandma Goes to the River.” Each episode ends with a song and dance that features Grandma singing, “Are you doing anything mottainai?, which I played for my one-year-old niece Rowan who giggled and wiggled along playfully. And for all of us, whether young or old, the Mottainai Grandma series has helped send the important message of mottainai to our hearts and inspired a movement.

“This is an era where things are abundant, so you might not think about what is mottainai,” says Keiko Toda, who voices the Japanese version of Mottainai Grandma, as well as other kid-friendly characters such as Anpanman and Thomas the Tank Engine. “Mothers and fathers should also see this story, not just to say ‘mottainai’ to scold the children, but to understand why something is mottainai. I hope they will understand there is a good reason.”

Mariko added that being more mindful of the environment is an important part of life amid a global pandemic as well. “Before we try to restore our lives to how it used to be, we should aim for a better world than before,” she told me. “I would like to move forward by giving priority to what we should do to live and finding ways to make everyone happy in a sustainable society that protects the environment.”

Mottainai Grandma in English

Mottainai Grandma in Spanish

JULIA // Tokyo