What is Mottainai? Japan’s Eco-Friendly Philosophy

© Rokujigen Kintsugi Studio
Rokujigen Kintsugi Studio

As our global society pushes the earth to its environmental limits, it’s up to individuals to forge our own path to sustainability.

When it comes to eco-friendly practices for the 21st century, there is perhaps no better source of inspiration than the past. Let’s take a look at a time where items handcrafted from natural resources were used, reused, and repurposed as a means in respect to nature and in respect to quality craftsmanship.

The time is 19th century Japan. The place: Edo, center of Japanese politics and culture for nearly three centuries. During this time, the working class had the means and leisure time to enjoy ukiyo, a floating world of popular art, fashion, and entertainment eagerly consumed by the masses. But despite the excesses, the concept of mottainai helped to moderate society.

To Keep or To Throw Away? The Rise of Mottainai Culture

Famous Places of Tokaido by Fujikawa Tamenobu, 1890
Famous Places of Tokaido by Fujikawa Tamenobu, 1890

Much like our modern society, ukiyo influenced consumer trends and consumption habits. However, long before our current dependency on single-use plastics, synthetic fabrics, and other environmentally damaging items, Edoites lived in a self-sustaining environment of conscious consumption that conserved resources like wood and paper, textiles, and porcelain.

This mindful use of resources gave rise to the culture of mottainai, a simple but powerful phrase that conveys the wasted opportunity of objects that have yet to reach their full potential.

Narumi by Utagawa Kunisada, 1845
Narumi by Utagawa Kunisada, 1845

Throwing away a pair of perfectly fine geta sandals because of a broken strap? Mottainai!

Discarding a kimono because your child outgrew it? Mottainai!

Hiding your favorite tea cup because it’s got a few cracks? Mottainai!

Edo Japan, in short, was a society of eco-friendly practices such as conspicuous consumption and resource conservation in which items were used, reused, and repurposed with gratitude.

Bathing Culture and the Conservation of Natural Resources

Mirror of Elegance by Tamagawa Shucho, 18th Century

Mirror of Elegance by Tamagawa Shucho, 18th Century

As it is customary in Japan to cleanse the body before entering a bathtub, the concept of public bathing allowed for the conservation of water as well as precious firewood used to heat the bath.

Bathing culture in Japan is based on Buddhist and Shinto purifying rituals as well as the healing properties of hot springs. Travelers on religious pilgrimages bathed on the grounds of shrines and temples to achieve spiritual purity, while the infirm and weary sought out hot springs to relieve their physical ailments.

Bathing Beauties by Utagawa Toyokuni I, 1793

Bathing Beauties by Utagawa Toyokuni I, 1793

The average Edoite, however, frequented sento (public baths) daily, and the practice continues in modern Japan; though it is more customary for families to use their own bath where they continue to conserve water by showering before entering the shared hot bath.
Japanese Eagle Furoshiki, at  Japan Objects Store

Japanese Eagle Furoshiki

Another eco-friendly bathing practice that has lasted to the present day is the use of furoshiki, a multipurpose cloth used to carry, store, and wrap items. Bathers brought their toiletries and clothing in furoshiki, but as the variety of furoshiki patterns and motifs hit the market, furoshiki became a practical yet stylish means to carry and store one’s belongings.

Taiko Reversible Furoshiki, at  Japan Objects Store

Taiko Reversible Furoshiki

In present day Japan, it is customary to use furoshiki to wrap bento lunch boxes and gifts, and furoshiki to this day continue to be printed by hand using yuzen, shibori, and hikisome methods and with natural dyes. Some furoshiki are even reversible, making them an attractive and viable alternative to wasteful gift wrapping materials.

Kyoto Furoshiki, at  Japan Objects Store

Kyoto Furoshiki

By simply attaching handles to a furoshiki, the versatile cloth can also be transformed into a reusable, spacing-saving tote bag that easily replaces single-use plastic bags. And because furoshiki are available in a multitude of designs, fashion-conscious individuals will enjoy repurposing their furoshiki into a stylish handbag that reflects their personal tastes.

Dusting by Tomioka Eisen, 1902

Dusting by Tomioka Eisen, 1902

Similar to furoshiki are tenugui, a thin, rectangular piece of fabric that doubles as a multipurpose accessory. Edo bathers used tenugui to dry the body, but tenugui are also used much like handkerchiefs to wipe away sweat and dust and to protect the head from the elements.

Machiya Tenugui, at  Japan Objects Store

Machiya Tenugui

With improved dying techniques and greater availability of natural dyes, Edoites had a wide selection of tenugui at their disposal, transforming the simple cotton cloths into a functional fashion accessory. Ever the conscious consumers, Edoites even used strips of tenugui as a means to repair broken straps on their wooden sandals, all in the spirit of mottainai!

Red Koi Tenugui, at  Japan Objects Store

Red Koi Tenugui

The tenugui is a must for the home and when you’re on the go — the absorbent, lightweight fabric air dries quickly, eliminating the need to use a dryer. Use tenugui in the kitchen as a tea towel or drying cloth, a lunch mat, or even as a decorative art piece. And, like furoshiki, tenugui are available in a fantastic variety of colors and designs!

Recycling of Textiles, Fabrics, and Fashion

Airing Clothes by Tomioka Eisen, 1900s

Airing Clothes by Tomioka Eisen, 1900s

Furoshiki and tenugui were not the only textiles repurposed and recycled in Edo Japan. Kimono — the preferred garment of the day — were hand-crafted from woven silk, dyed, and embroidered in an intricate multi-step process. These handmade pieces were of great value and passed down from generation to generation.

Vintage Japanese Crane Silk Kimono, at  Japan Objects Store

Vintage Japanese Crane Silk Kimono

Because the kimono is cut straight at a standard width, it can easily be recycled into futon bedding and zabuton cushions. However, it is the pattern and lining, rather than the cut of the kimono, that affords the wearer a means of self-expression. Therefore, the most efficient way that fashion-conscious Edoites kept up with trends was to simply re-wear a kimono with different obi or accessories rather than making unnecessary purchases.

Red Silk Vintage Haori Jacket, at  Japan Objects Store

Red Silk Vintage Haori Jacket

Synthetic fabrics and fast fashion have severe environmental consequences, so opt for quality handmade silk and cotton kimono and haori to make a fashion statement. Create your own signature style by incorporating Japanese garments into your wardrobe. Wear a bold vintage haori or kimono as outerwear or a vintage formal black kimono in place of evening wear.

Healing Through Recycling

Kintsugi Tea Bowl
Kintsugi Tea Bowl

Perhaps the most well-known method of recycling in Edo Japan is kintsugi, a beautiful yet practical method of mending broken ceramics with lacquer and gold pigment. Pottery and stoneware were valuable commodities and merely replacing cracked or broken items was a costly (and foolish) endeavor. Edoites used kintsugi to extend the use of household goods while appreciating the fragility of life and its perceived flaws.

Kintsugi Ceramics in Use
Kintsugi Ceramics in Use

In the present day, kintsugi is a wonderful means to preserve both treasured ceramics and everyday kitchenware. As a modern day wellness practice, kintsugi urges practitioners to find success within failure and the beauty in life’s shortcomings. Along with using kintsugi as a method to heal through recycling, we can also find the beauty in repurposing clothing and household items by adapting a mottainai mindset.

For the craftspeople of Rokujigen Kintsugi Studio, kintsugi is about more than repairing individual objects, but can be a symbol for bringing together disparate cultures, and creating something stronger and more beautiful in the process.

Hizenkuni, Imari yaki by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1830

Hizenkuni, Imari yaki by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1830

By looking to Edo Japan for inspiration, we find that the path to sustainable and eco-friendly practices starts with conscious consumption and a shift to items that can be used, reused, and repurposed readily. As we step away from single-use plastics, synthetic fabrics, and focus on resource conservation, perhaps these new practices of the 21st century will inspire future generations to live sustainably.
Post inspired by Teni Wada

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