Word of the Week: もったいない

It’s time for Word of the Week again! Last time we looked at a Japanese word or phrase beginning with ‘me’ (め), focussing on めんどくさい (mendokusai), which means ‘troublesome’ or ‘bothersome’. This week I’m looking for a word or phrase beginning with ‘mo’ (も). A big thank you for the suggestions this week:

Rockin’ suggested ‘moteru’ (モテる), ‘popular’; and ‘motemote’ (モテモテ), ‘sexy’ or ‘popular’; and Japan Australia suggested ‘mondai nai’ (問題ない), ‘no problem’; ‘motenai’ (モテない), ‘not popular’; and also ‘moteru’.

There were some great ideas, but this week I have decided to write about…



‘Mottainai’ is an adjective which has become quite popular as a Japanese buzzword over the last few years. It basically means ‘wasteful’ or ‘sacrilegious’, and has been picked up as a key word in the promotion of green living and not being wasteful. There’s even an English Wikipedia page about the word now, and although ‘mottainai’ is a Japanese word I have a feeling it’s one that will easily cross over into the English language as there’s no real equivalent for ‘mottainai’ in English. In addition to meaning ‘wasteful’, ‘mottainai’ can also mean ‘irreverent’ or ‘more than one deserves’.

The word can be used alone as an expression of something being wasteful. For example, if excess food is thrown away, one might say “Mottainai!” meaning “What a waste!”. This is a word which is deeply ingrained in Japanese society; a society in which recycling and reuse are priorities and being ‘eco’ (エコ) is important. In Buddhism, it is believed that there is a spirit in everything, which gives us another reason to not be wasteful. If a fish has died to produce the sushi I am going to eat, it would then be disrespectful and wastful to throw that sushi in the bin. Mottainai!

In 2005 the word ‘mottainai’ was popularised by Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Professor Wangari Muta Maathai (1940 – 2011) at the United Nations. The Mottainai Campaign was formed with the aim of spreading the concept of ‘mottainai’ as a common keyword for conserving the environment.


While living in Japan I was struck by how much people recycle and do try to reuse things. At first all the recycling is a bit of a chore, but you soon come to realise how important it is. I still think Japan has a long way to go in this area, and there is serious work to be done when it comes to packaging (which is usually excessive), but at least for the most part Japan’s heart is in the right place.


Next week’s post will be about a word or phrase beginning with ‘ya’ (や), so please leave your suggestions below. The word can be a verb, adjective or expression, but no nouns please! For example, ‘yasui’ (やすい) meaning ‘cheap’ , would be acceptable, but ‘Yamagata’ (山形), the place, would not. I look forward to reading your ideas! (*^_^)v

Word of the Week 2014

7 thoughts on “Word of the Week: もったいない

  1. Great choice! A few suggestions for next week are:

    Yabai (やばい) Informal term for “Oh No!” or “I’m in trouble!”
    Yada (やだ) Slang meaning “no” or “no way!”
    Yatta (やった) Informal term for “Yes, I did it” or “Yay”


  2. Mottainai is positively laughable, at least in Tokyo, when you actually go shopping and look at the amount of packaging on everything (and consider that, in many places, all that work you do sorting out your recycling means nothing since it all goes to the incinerator anyway).

    I like the word of the week idea, and I do enjoy your writing, I just think this one is… a little misleading. And it’s certainly not your fault, it’s just a cultural issue.


    • Thanks for stopping by, Phu. My Word of the Week posts aim to share a Japanese word and explain its use in its cultural context. I’ve never lived in Tokyo, but in Nagoya and Hamamatsu where I lived for a total of 3 years I felt people were generally trying to do their best when it came to recycling and environmental issues. I completely agree that Japan has a long way to go when it comes to packaging, and probably recycling too, but it seems light years ahead of the UK where I currently live.


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