When I hear someone mumble “mottainai,” I tense up. I’ve got mottainai PTSD. I moved to Japan when the generation that grew up during the war was still in charge, the mottainai missionaries. Translated strictly, “mottainai” means “what a waste.” But it is usually used to mean “Are you out of your cotton-pickin’ mind? How could you even think of throwing that out?”
In the name of mottainai, most gifts received during the Age of Obligatory Gift Giving (roughly 1970-1995) were put in closets–until the closets were jampacked, after which they were stacked against walls, and then against other piles… you get the picture. Schools and churches dipped into stocks of stuff to hold bazaars. Crowds showed up to buy the stuff. You might call it a rearranging of the gifts–people with too many bottles of soy sauce could bring them in and purchase boxes of soap for a low price. And so on. But people without connections to bazaars were left with rooms of stuff, all much too mottainai to give up. All much too old to be of use after about 20 years.
Nowadays, though you have to buy your own stuff to keep and not be mottainai. Housewives buy food for any contingency–especially when on sale. 20 carrots for the price of 3? Why not! Vegetables can conveniently be left for up to a month to re-color in the refrigerator. But woe the person tasked with cleaning it out to make room for new food. And for goodness sake, don’t cut off anymore of those aging carrot tops than is green. A millimeter of orange will have the mottainai police at your door.
I’d like to declare the new century (somewhat belatedly) The Post-mottainai Era. The motto of the post-mottainai generation should be “Don’t buy it in the first place! Don’t take it home even if they’re giving it away!” Instead of chiding people who dispose of the used up and unneeded, stand behind people in line at the cash register, and seethe “mottainai” when a purchase looks unnecessary or excessive to you (use your own standards, don’t be shy). Go up behind the purchaser and ask in a sincere tone, “Are you really going to use all of that? Do you have room for that at home? Shall I carry it back to the shelves for you?”
Don’t worry, no one will consider you a busybody. And you won’t hurt anyone’s feelings because any admonishment is acceptable–it always has been–as long as it is preceded by a low growl of “mottainai!”