Mottainai is a Japanese term meaning ‘a sense of regret concerning waste when the intrinsic value of an object or resource is not properly utilized.’

The expression can be uttered alone as an exclamation when something useful, such as food or time, is wasted, meaning roughly ‘Oh, what a waste!’ In addition to its primary sense of ‘wasteful,’ the word is also used to mean ‘impious; irreverent’ or ‘more than one deserves.’

Mottainai in Japanese refers to far more than just physical waste (resources) as in other cultures. It can refer to wasted and wasteful efforts and actions, activities, time, souls, talents, emotion, minds, dreams, and potential. It is even used to refer to thought patterns that give rise to wasteful action. Mottainai activities commonly lead to anger or protest when the person who is observing the utter waste is incapable of holding back their emotions. Those who do not dwell on the negative and are resigned to move on are more capable of sadly regretting. It can also be used as an adjective phrase (‘it feels mottainai’). The collection of mottainai things could be called mottainai koto.

In ancient Japanese, mottainai had various meanings, including a sense of gratitude mixed with shame for receiving greater favor from a superior than is properly merited by one’s station in life. Buddhists traditionally used the term mottainai to indicate regret at the waste or misuse of something sacred or highly respected, such as religious objects or teaching. Today, the word is widely used in everyday life to indicate the waste of any material object, time, or other resource. Compare also the concept of tsukumogami ‘artifact spirit,’ which are said to live in old objects that have gained self-awareness and are angered if the object is thrown away wastefully.

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