Most Mondays, I offer advice on how to avoid waste. Today, listening to this NPR piece on the Japanese idea of Mottainai will be more helpful than any of my specific recommendations.

Mottainai means, roughly, ‘don’t waste.’ The concept is part of Japan’s cultural DNA, but it had recently been losing out to consumerism (sound familiar, my fellow Americans?). It is making a comeback thanks to Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai adoption of the word and author Moriko Shinju.

Shinju wrote the book Mottainai Grandma to make the idea of Mottainai relevant to Japanese children and, specifically, her four-year-old son, who didn’t understand why it was important to finish his food. With 400,000 copies sold, I’d say it’s helping. 

Then again, there is a down side to Mottainai. Much like the ‘clean your plate’ ethic, there’s a risk of traumatizing kids. While Americans employ a helping of guilt–finish your plate because there are kids starving in _____ (insert country)–the Japanese method can be fear-inducing. 

NPR’s Japanese interpreter was told as a child that she’d go blind if she didn’t eat every grain of rice. To this day, she can’t bring herself to leave a grain of rice on her plate.

While reducing food waste may not be worth this kind of trauma, the idea of Mottainai, in moderation, can teach kids the virtue of conservation. In that spirit of restraint, you may want to abstain from licking rice off your grandson’s face (as Mottainai Grandma does).

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  1. Posted October 10, 2007 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of a book I read a few years ago. It was written by a woman who survived the Khmer Rouge camps as a young girl. She mentioned how very, very little rice the children got. Shortly after this, I was reading about sushi etiquette and learned that leaving rice on your plate is considered rude. Since then, I’ve always made sure to clean my plate, while also making sure not to take more food or order more sushi than I need.

  2. Jonathan
    Posted October 11, 2007 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I like that sushi etiquette. It’s too bad that line of thought isn’t as ubiquitous as sushi restaurants have become.

  3. Emily
    Posted October 12, 2007 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I’d be curious to know what other readers of this blog think about etiquette when it comes to food and food waste. In America these days is it rude to leave food on your plate when you are a guest? What have people actually experienced? I would say that as a guest, I feel compelled to eat most of the food I’m served, but it would almost be rude to eat it all – isn’t it almost seen as gluttonous or unhealthy? I know it depends on how much you’re served in the first place, but i guess my experience is that i’m usually served lots of food whether at a friend’s house or at a restaurant.

    But then, I wonder if this is different from what was the norm 30 years ago or 50 years ago or 100 years? I have a feeling my mom used to say that it was polite to leave a little on your plate…

    What do others think?

  4. adora
    Posted May 18, 2008 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    My grandma and grandpa were farmers and cooks in China when they were young. The Chinese saying is “each [rice] grain is hard work”. They would kill me if I leave even a grain of rice in the bowl. My little brothers often leave food, but my mom will finish it to save their lives. (lol)
    It is traumatizing to force kids to finish the food, but my parents let us decide how much to eat. My aunt’s a little more strict. When our cousin can’t finish the food, she wrap it up and store in the fridge. They will have to eat from the same plate again the next meal. So it is better to finish it the first time.
    I hear a lot of story about the hardship of farming from my grandma. I find it impossible to waste food, and it even breaks my heart when I see people not eating the pizza crust. Maybe elementary schools can offer farming/gardening activities. There are a lot of Japanese schools with school gardens, it’s great for science class as well.

  5. Posted November 3, 2009 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    I thank Katy at for bringing me to your blog – finishing everything up on my plate (and everyone else’s plate)is something I’m struggling with. I heard a wonderful talk that the tree in the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve sinned by eating from was not a particular tree, but rather that they ate more than they needed. G-d gave them all that they needed and He told them not to eat from This One – because it’s more than you need. I don’t know if my strong objections to waste comes from how I was raised, but I do know it doesn’t always serve me. Fortunately some goes to my dog, some to the compost, but too much still inside my body – more than I need.

  6. Posted March 10, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Terrifying! But good for the environment. Perhaps we should learn to reuse emissions to reduce waste, just an idea. Is anyone working on that?!

    Ramblin’ Midnight Owl
    The One Who Never Sleeps

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