Decluttering? Consider the Japanese Concept of 'Mottainai'

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Close-up of a woman in a striped dress sews a button with a thread on a pink sweater, which she herself tied

Everyonephoto Studio 681965563 / Shutterstock

There should be more to decluttering than just tossing your joyless junk.

I am thrilled that decluttering dynamo Marie Kondo is entering the mainstream via her new Netflix series. And while I don't always agree with her mandate that only those things which "spark joy" should be spared the junk bin, I do think that embracing a more minimal lifestyle is a crucial direction for a culture so smitten with consumption.

But for me, there's an elephant in each newly KonMaried room: The bags of rejected clutter headed for the landfill.

In a better world, those bags wouldn't exist in the first place. We wouldn't live in a culture that defines us by our stuff, and we wouldn't have marketers and the media constantly foisting things upon us that we do not need. Hopefully, the newly minimalist masses will now be encouraged to think twice before making new purchases.

But in the meantime, what to do with all the stuff? Ditching it in the landfill is not the answer. I am envisioning curbs across the lands studded with giant trash bags filled with unread books, novelty kitchen gizmos, and mismatched bedding. What a sad fate that so much went into making those things, and there they will sit, dying a very slow death in the landfill.

Alexandra Spring tackles this quandary in an essay for The Guardian, writing, that "the idea of 'don’t like it, just bin it' encourages the culture of disposability." She continues:

We’re chucking out more than greying T-shirts and old tax receipts. While that cotton T-shirt only cost you $10, there were countless resources that went into it: the materials, the water, the energy, the labour, the transport and the packaging is all being wasted too.

She goes on to discuss the problems with recycling and donating to charities, and ends up at the Japanese cultural concept of "mottainai."

She writes that, "It has a long history but essentially it expresses regret at the idea of waste and reflects an awareness of interdependence and impermanence of things. Mottainai is all about reusing, repurposing, repairing and respecting items."

Spring would like to see Kondo following up with re-using and repairing some of that joyless junk. While I admit that would have been enlightening, Kondo's magic is in getting people to let go, not in getting crafty and saving things. But that doesn't mean that we can't pick it up from there.

On our personal journeys of decluttering, since those journeys are not being made for TV, why not think more mottainai, less landfill?

Kevin Taylor is an expert in environmental philosophy, and he explains that mottainai expresses a feeling of regret at "wasting the intrinsic value of a resource or object, and can be translated as both 'what a waste' and 'don't be wasteful'."

"Mottainai has come to be thought of as an all-encompassing Japanese term for the four Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle and respect," he says. (I love the addition of "respect" to the collection of Rs, which should also always include "repair" as well.)

Mottainai goes much deeper than I'm sure I understand. Taylor explains that it has origins in Buddhist philosophy and religious syncretism. And I don't want to get into trouble here for misunderstanding or misappropriating its cultural nuances. But hey, we need some help here! We're drowning in our stuff, and if we could borrow some inspiration it might help us out of our predicament.

As Taylor put it, "Mottainai attempts to communicate the inherent value in a thing and encourage using objects fully or all the way to the end of their lifespan. Leave no grain of rice in your bowl; if a toy breaks, repair it; and take good care of everything."

From hereon, before making a purchase, consider if you can make a commitment to that thing to use it to the end of its lifespan. To reuse it, repair it, recycle it, and best of all, respect it. Because if you can't, it may very well end up in bag on the curb in the next decluttering frenzy, waiting for the cycle to repeat over and over and over again ... and where's the joy in that?