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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