Japan’s ‘waste not, because not’ philosophy has deep religious and cultural roots, from monsters and meditation to Marie Kondo cleaning up

The word “waste” is often frightening. People are afraid of not making the most of their time, both at work and in their free time, and failing to live life to the fullest.

Warnings against waste are especially deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Many Americans are familiar with the famous tidying technique of organization guru Marie Kondo, who wrote “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Travelers to Japan may hear the classic expression “mottainai,” which means “don’t be wasteful” or “what a waste.” There are even gods, ghosts and monsters, or ‘yokai’, associated with waste, cleanliness and respect for material goods.

As a scholar of Asian philosophy and religions, I believe the popularity of “mottainai” expresses an ideal rather than a reality. Japan isn’t always known for being environmentally conscious, but its anti-waste values ​​are deeply rooted. These traditions have been shaped by age-old Buddhist and Shinto teachings about the interconnectedness of inanimate objects with humans that continue to influence culture today.

Rock sprites and ceiling lickers

The idea of ​​avoiding waste is closely related to the idea of ​​cleanliness, which has a whole range of spirits and rituals in Japanese culture. Fans of famed animator Hayao Miyazaki may remember the cute little rustling sprites made of fabric in his movies “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away.” Then there’s the ceiling licker, “tenjōname”: a large monster with a long tongue that is said to eat the dirt that accumulates in hard-to-reach places.

‘Oosouji’ or ‘big cleaning’ is a household ritual at the end of the year. Formerly known as ‘susuharai’ or ‘soot sweep’, it’s more than a chance to clean up. The rite is believed to dispel the negativity of the previous year while also welcoming the Shinto god Toshigami: an important deity, considered grandson of the gods who created the islands of Japan – and who brings good luck for the new year.

Out with the tainted and old, in with the purified and new.

A painting on a roll shows several people in traditional Japanese clothing cleaning a house intensively.
A scene of cleaning in preparation for the New Year by artist Kitagawa Utamaro in the late 18th century. Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images Revenge of the tools

There are numerous types of monsters in Japanese folklore, including “yokai.” As Japanese folklore scholar Michael Dylan Foster points out, the “yokai” category is nearly impossible to define, because its meaning is constantly changing — and many yokai themselves are shape-shifters.

For example, “yurei” are really terrifying, vengeful ghosts. But another category of yokai is the living, shape-shifting “bakemono” — including the mischievous “tanuki,” a raccoon dog, and “kitsune,” or fox, often depicted in statues guarding shrines.

A special class of yokai is known as ‘tsukumogami’, referring to animated household objects. This concept has its origin in Shinto, which literally translates as ‘the way of the gods’, and is the indigenous folk religion of Japan. Shinto recognizes ghosts, or ‘kami’, as existing in various places in the human world: from trees, mountains and waterfalls to man-made objects.

It is said that when an object becomes 100 years old, it is inhabited by a Shinto spirit and comes to life as a tsukumogami. The ‘Tsukumogami-ki’ or ‘Record of Tool Specters’ is a text written sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries. It tells the story of how exactly such objects, already 100 years old and possessed by kami, were thrown in the trash after the annual cleaning ritual. These animated household objects took offense at their casual disdain after years of faithful service. Angry at the perceived disrespect, the tool spirits went on a rampage: drinking, gambling and even kidnapping and killing people and animals.

A faded poster with brightly colored small images of various types of monsters.
A poster of monsters by the Japanese artist Utagawa Shigekiyo, published in 1860. Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Despite the Shinto elements, this is not a Shinto story, but a Buddhist story. The frenzy of the animated household objects comes to an end when Buddhist priests intervene — intended to convince the public that Buddhist practices were more powerful than local spirits associated with Shinto. At the time, Buddhism was still strengthening its influence in Japan.

Resting objects

If the “Tsukumogami-ki” is Buddhist propaganda, it is also a cautionary tale. The objects pushed aside are furious because they have been treated without thinking.

Reverence for objects has persisted in many forms throughout Japanese history. Sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes for more symbolic reasons. The samurai sword known as the ‘katana’, for example, was often regarded as the soul of the warrior, symbolizing devotion to the warrior’s way, or ‘bushido’. In a more mundane example, cracked teapots are not thrown away, but repaired with gold in a process called “kintsugi,” which adds an asymmetrical beauty, like a gold scar.

A light-colored bowl with gold stripes over it stands against a white background.
A bowl restored with gold along the cracks, using the traditional ‘kintsugi’ restoration technique. Marco Montalti/iStock via Getty Images Plus

This reverence also persists in the form of funeral services for a myriad of objects deserving of respect, such as the burning of dolls in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. No longer wanted but unloved dolls are collected so that the inner spirits can be honored and released before the end of their lives. A similar practice exists for craftsmen’s sewing needles, which are shut down at a memorial service.

Karma and clutter

The roots of this attitude towards material things are therefore religious, practical and psychological. As a Japanese philosophy of waste, “mottainai” ties into Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on emptiness: minimalism to empty the mind and bring insight.

This desire to show respect also stems from Buddhist beliefs that all things, living or not, are interconnected – a teaching called ‘pratītyasamutpāda’. It is closely associated with beliefs about karma: the idea that actions have consequences, especially moral consequences.

In short, Buddhism recognizes that things shape people, for better or for worse. Unhealthy attachments to objects can manifest in a variety of ways, whether it’s a perceived need to buy an expensive car or an unwillingness to let go of unnecessary stuff.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean throwing everything away. When we’re done with material goods, we don’t just have to throw them in the trash to fill landfills or pollute the air and water. They can be given a dignified goodbye, either through reuse or responsible disposal.

Failing that, the story warns in the “Record of Tool Specters,” they may come back to haunt us.

Well, that’s scary.

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