The Japanese “wasteless, unwilling” philosophy has deep religious and cultural roots, from monsters and meditation to Marie Kondo storage


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Kevin C. Taylor, University of Memphis

(THE CONVERSATION) The word “waste” is often scary. People fear that they are not making the most of their time, whether at work or at play, and that they are not living life to the fullest.

Warnings against waste are particularly ingrained in Japanese culture. Many Americans are familiar with the famous decluttering technique from organization guru Marie Kondo, who wrote “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Travelers to Japan may hear the classic phrase “mottainai,” meaning “don’t waste” or “what a waste.” There are even gods, spirits, and monsters, or “yokai,” associated with wastefulness, cleanliness, and respect for material possessions.

As a specialist in Asian philosophy and religions, I believe that the popularity of “mottainai” expresses an ideal more than a reality. Japan isn’t always known for being environmentally conscious, but its anti-waste values ​​run deep. These traditions were shaped by centuries-old Buddhist and Shinto teachings about the interdependence of inanimate objects with humans that continue to influence culture today.

Soot sprites and ceiling lickers

The idea of ​​avoiding waste is closely related to ideas of order, which have a whole series of spirits and rituals in Japanese culture. Fans of famed animator Hayao Miyazaki might remember the adorable little soot sprites made of dust from 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 devour dirt that accumulates in hard-to-reach places.

“Oosouji”, or “big cleaning”, is a domestic ritual at the end of the year. Formerly known as “susuharai” or “soot sweep”, it’s more than a chance to tidy up. The rite is believed to expel negativity from the previous year while welcoming the Shinto god Toshigami: a major deity, believed to be the grandson of the gods who created the islands of Japan – and who brings good luck for the new year.

Exit the soiled and the old, make way for the purified and the new.

Revenge of the tools

There are countless varieties of monsters in Japanese folklore, including “yokai”. As Japanese folklore scholar Michael Dylan Foster points out, the category “yokai” is nearly impossible to define, as the meaning is ever-changing – and many yokai themselves are shapeshifters.

For example, “yurei” are truly terrifying and vengeful ghosts. But another category of yokai are the living, shape-shifting “bakemono” – including the mischievous “tanuki”, a raccoon dog, and the “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 origins in Shintoism, which literally translates to “the way of the gods”, and is the indigenous folk religion of Japan. Shinto recognizes that spirits, or “kami”, exist in various places in the human world: from trees, mountains and waterfalls to man-made objects.

It is said that when an object reaches 100 years of age, it becomes inhabited by a Shinto spirit and comes to life as a tsukumogami. The “Tsukumogami-ki”, or “Recording of tool spectra”, is a text written between the 14th and 16th centuries. He tells how such objects, already 100 years old and owned by kami, were thrown in the trash after the annual cleaning ritual. These lively household objects have taken offense to their flippant disregard after years of loyal service. Angered by the perceived disrespect, the specters of the tool have been unleashed: drinking, gambling, even kidnapping and killing humans and animals.

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

Place objects at rest

If “Tsukumogami-ki” is Buddhist propaganda, it is also a cautionary tale. Objects set aside erupt in anger for being treated without a second thought.

Respect for objects has persisted throughout Japanese history in many forms. It is sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes more symbolic. The samurai sword known as the “katana”, for example, was often seen as the soul of the warrior, symbolizing devotion to the way of the warrior, or “bushido”. In a more common example, cracked teapots are not discarded but rather repaired with gold in a process called “kintsugi”, which adds an asymmetrical beauty like a golden scar.

This reverence also persists in the form of funeral services for a host of objects considered deserving of reverence, such as the doll-burning ceremonies performed at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Dolls that are no longer wanted but not unloved are collected so that the spirits within can be honored and released before their lives are over. A similar practice exists for artisans’ sewing needles, which are buried at a memorial service.

Karma and disorder

The roots of these attitudes towards material things are therefore religious, practical and psychological. As a Japanese philosophy of wastage, “mottainai” fits in with 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”. This is closely related to conceptions of karma: the idea that actions have consequences, especially moral consequences.

In short, Buddhism recognizes that things shape people, for better or for worse. An unhealthy attachment to objects can manifest in a variety of ways, from the perceived need to buy an expensive car to the reluctance to give up unnecessary items.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean throwing everything away. When we are done with material goods, we don’t need to just throw them in the trash to fill landfills or pollute the air and water. They can receive a dignified shipment, whether through responsible reuse or disposal.

Otherwise, the “Record of Tool Specters” story warns, they could come back to haunt us.

Now that’s scary.

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