Spreading the spirit of an old Japanese tradition

KAORI SHOJI – The Japan Times

It’s probably a sign of impending old age but these days, I find myself recalling the words of my late grandmother and applying them to current life situations.
Just the other day, I freaked someone out by quoting an ancient Chinese proverb in connection to a work-related topic — forget the fact that I was wearing a shirt from Number Nine (OK, it’s from several seasons back, but still!) and jeans from Miss Sixty, I was immediately branded “roushi (old master)” and offered a walking stick. But that very night I witnessed an impressively made-up, decked-out oneechan (babe) in 5-inch heels outside the am/pm conbini (convenience store) in Roppongi and she was lecturing — yes, lecturing — her girlfriend because the latter had thrown away a packet of half-eaten sandwiches. “Nanishiteruno, mottainai! Me ga tsubureruyo! (What are you doing? It’s so wasteful. You’ll be struck blind!)” she said and at that moment I had to stifle an urge to run over and give her a hug. Surely, surely that was no oneechan but my grandma, come back to life in dyed golden hair and a leopard-print dress.
Actually, a lot of Japanese seem to be channeling the wisdom of their grandmothers and/or equivalents lately as the word mottainai (that suggests something shouldn’t be thrown away or wasted) is uttered up and down the nation like some newly coined, exotic phrase, instead of one of the most oft-repeated words in the Japanese vocabulary. Generations of Japanese had been screaming mottainai for many centuries, threatening blindness, sudden death of a parent, plague and other heavenly punishments for wasting anything, ANYTHING at all.
In my family, the word was uttered by the elder female members at least seven times a day and any action was measured according to the standard of whether it was, or wasn’t, a waste. I grew up thinking that the habit of repeating mottainai was an acquired trait that came flying out of nowhere and stuck to the brain of people over 35. In my younger years it was practically a dirty word; one that should never be uttered in the presence of one’s boyfriend for fear of being called “dassaaai (tackkyyy)!” or the dreaded: “obasan-kusaaaaai (smells like a middle-aged woman)!”
And now mottainai is totally acceptable, even fashionable. The instigator, of course, was 2004 Nobel Prize winner Prof. Wangari Maathai, who earlier this year linked the word mottainai to her Green Belt Movement. Which is wonderful and honoring but leaves a strange feeling at the back of the mind — why is it that the Japanese refuse to recognize certain merits of Japanese culture (say, ukiyo-e, green tea, Takashi Murakami, et al.) unless a foreign voice tells them it’s OK to do so?
My grandmother saved everything from bottle caps to old bath towels. She refused to throw out even a spoonful of rice left in the corner of the suihanki (rice cooker), which she would recycle into a bowl of ume-gayu (porridge with salted plum). Far from being praised for her thrift, however, her antics were most often simply tolerated, or joked about. She used to cover her wrists in rubber bands that came with the mail, and peel them off one by one to use on various household tasks. I begged her not to do this, and then one day I got her a box of colored rubber bands (thinking that at least the different hues would look cute) upon which she scolded — yes, you guessed it: “mottainai!”
Grandma’s reasoning was that it was better to have them handy than to waste time looking for them. Now as we all know, rubber bands are in. The mottainai fad is tied to the howaito bando (white band) fad which has stretched out into the kala bando (colored band) fad (each color representing a different social statement) and now even the kacho (section manager) across the hall is letting his howaito bando peek from under his suit sleeve. These wide rubber bands (because really, that’s what they are) are not only the Coolest Things (endorsed by the likes of soccer star Hide Nakata and actress Norika Fujiwara), it shows the wearer is socially and ecologically conscious, that he/she is the type to: gomi o bunbetsu suru (divide the trash) and kokyo no kotsukikan ni noru (take public transportation) among other environmentally friendly acts.
It’s a good thing Grandma is no longer around because she’d be chortling nonstop. And what would that do to her digestion, ume-gayu or not?
The Japan Times: Nov. 8, 2005
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