I recently learned about a Japanese concept that I think has lots to teach us.
The Japanese are very good at encapsulating complex philosophies in a single word. Many of us will be familiar with wabi sabi – the embracing of the imperfect and impermanent. And I've long been an admirer of the idea of shokuiku, the term for food education that is enshrined in Japanese law and applied to people of all ages in Japan, so they develop lifelong connection with and understanding of food.
The term I've just learned, though, is something different again. It's mottainai (mott-tie-nigh, to pronounce).
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Mottainai loosely translates as something like "waste not, want not". But like all of these concepts it goes wider and deeper. Mottainai is a sense of regret at waste; sadness at the full value of something not being put to good use. It can be applied to anything: food, resources, time. A good example is rice, one of Japan's staples; kids are warned not to leave a single grain of rice in their bowls at the dinner table — such wastefulness is mottainai. My new Japanese friend even described how mottainai can be applied to relationships; not making the most of a great boyfriend or girlfriend can also be described as mottainai, and it's an expression of regret when the boyfriend moves on.
The concept of mottainai has been used by environmentalists to encourage better use of finite resources; the idea of reduce, re-use and recycle. And it's a good one to think about as we enter the festive season, which can be a time of excess and sometimes waste.
Food waste as we know is one of our big environmental issues; bigger than plastic waste, although for some reason we worry much more about the latter. We waste a lot of food in New Zealand, and most of it is at household level; Every year Kiwis send 157,398 tonnes of food to landfill, all of which could have been eaten. I suspect at Christmas there might be a spike in food waste; we buy in excess before the holidays "just in case"; we have a huge feast on Christmas day and then may struggle to use up the leftovers. UK research in the past found in that country the equivalent of four million Christmas dinners was wasted.
So it's worth taking a breath before we embark on the Christmas food buying frenzy. I'm going to have a think about mottainai this year; I'm going to think about the value of everything I'm eating and the work and effort that's gone into growing and making it. Then I'm going to try and honour that by firstly not buying more than I need, and then making the most of what I do buy.
It's also worth thinking about mottainai when it comes to people. Whoever we sit down with at the festive table, let's make the most of our time with them. The people we love are a precious, finite resource, too.