Mottainai and Thoughts on Language

This weekend I was finally brave enough to cut into a piece of fabric a friend sent me from Japan. The coin purse is a start.

Although I’ve never been there, Japanese culture fascinates me: Boro textiles, the elaborate ceremonies around kimonos and wabi-sabi to name a few. What I hadn’t heard about was the term “mottainai” . Don’t ask me how I found it, but I did.

Mottainai means “a sense of regret concerning waste when the intrinsic value of an object or resource is not properly utilized“. According to wikipedia, it can refer to physical waste (resources) but also to wasted and wasteful efforts and actions, activities, time, souls, talents, emotion, minds, dreams, and potential.

Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmental activist Wangari Muta Mary Jo Maathai (1940 – 2011), heard the word mottainai for the first time when she visited Japan and started the MOTTAINAI Campaign, which is striving for world peace through environmental conservation.

A wonderful example of how powerful words can be. To think that the sense of regret concerning waste can be expressed so precisely in one word. Obviously, this is not exclusive to the Japanese language. Just think of words like “Zeitgeist” or “Weltschmerz”.

Many of those words can’t be precisely translated because they are tied into a culture. “Wabi Sabi” is one of these words or “Mono no Aware“, the awareness of impermanence, or the transience of things.

I think about language all the time, because English is not my mother tongue. Here’s an example: If I say in English: “I bring a friend….”, nobody knows if that friend is man, woman or dog. In German and many other languages, the sex of bespoke friend has to be revealed right away simply because of the word’s ending: “Freund” (masc.) or “Freundin”. Amigo or Amiga.

Do you believe language constricts the way we think?

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4 Responses to “Mottainai and Thoughts on Language”

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  1. Maria says:

    Yes, I do! I am Spanish…so I know that my thought pattern and my way of being comes from who I am – Latin!

    The coin purse is very, very nice :-)


  2. Bele says:

    “Mottainai” is a wonderful find!
    I love playing with language and languages, so I am not so keen on the idea of a constricting language. But isn’t it rather revealing, which expressions are not to be translated into other languages (or mentalities…)?
    One of my favorites just at the moment is “serendipity”.

    Brave you! I really would have problems to cut into the fabric. But I love the purse, though.


  3. kathrin says:

    Serendipity is also one of my favorites. Ein bischen wie Schokolade. Das Wort zergeht einem richtig auf der Zunge. Bzgl. in den schoenen Kimonostoff reinschneiden: Das wurde mir ein bischen leicht gemacht, da der Aermel einen Riss hatte, und ich die Teile fuer das kleine Geldbeutelchen ganz nah am Riss ausschneiden konnte. Du hast schon recht, es ist ungeheuer schwer in Samt und Seide reinzuschneiden. Vor allem, wenn so was schon von Hand genaeht wurde. Ich naehe gerne ganz einfache Stoffe, da die Ergebnisse in der Regel den Stoff aufwerten. Beim Kimonostoff musste ich ein bischen schlucken als ich den Beutel an den Verschluss (Made in China) genaeht habe. Ein wunderschoenes Wochenende… lg Kathrin

  4. Catherine says:

    Hello Kathrin,

    This post has been sitting in my inbox for quite sometime and I wanted to say I really enjoyed the change purse and it seems fitting as the smallest bill in Japan is 1000 yen which is equivalent to about 12USD. Hence, change in Japan is vexing yet unavoidable.

    I loved your commentary more-so. “Mottainai” is a wonderful concept. I love the idea and after the large tsunami here, there wasn’t a day that went by the I didn’t think of such a phrase or hear it.

    With that said, I wanted to comment on the question you posed. I am totally quite horrid at Japanese but after spending 2 years in Japan, one vast difference that stuck me with English and Japanese is the fact that they rarely use the pronoun, “I”. When speaking or just typing this, I have said “I” more than a half dozen times without realizing it. It gives us a sense of self (this could be good or bad depending on the person). But in Japan, they view themselves more as a “we”. In general, they identify and act as a whole, not an individual. What does it really mean in regards to the mass? General cooperation and respect for each other, as seen in such an extreme crisis on March 11th. With that said, there is an extremely high suicide rate in Japan. Not feeling part of the whole cause problems with the self. Understandably so. It’s a great question put out there… so yeah, I definitely think language constricts (and expands) our thoughts.

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