Mottainai Grandma Reminds Japan, 'Don't Waste' Balancing a Western lifestyle of high-tech needs with an ancient conservationist attitude is becoming increasingly difficult for Japan. But as the country struggles to meet its Kyoto Protocol commitments, a children's book is urging the Japanese to recall their penny-wise roots.
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Mottainai Grandma Reminds Japan, 'Don't Waste'

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Mottainai Grandma Reminds Japan, 'Don't Waste'

Mottainai Grandma Reminds Japan, 'Don't Waste'

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NPR and National Geographic are traveling the world for Climate Connections. This morning, we're in Japan. The Kyoto Protocol was signed there a decade ago. That's the big climate treaty in which many countries around the world pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.


Now one way to reduce emissions is through conservation. And Japan has a strong tradition of living small and smart. But it's also a country that likes the good life, and the good life requires electricity - a lot of electricity.

NPR's David Kestenbaum traveled to Japan for our series and stayed in a hotel with four remote controls and heated toilet seats and a talking bath. He did find a different message in a popular children's book called "Mottainai Grandma."

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The book begins Mottainai Grandma is coming, which, depending on your viewpoint is either cause for celebration or reason to run. Mottainai, roughly translates as don't waste. In the drawings, Grandma looks a little stern - hair up in a bun, cane in one hand. And there's no avoiding her eyes. Mottainai, she said to her grandson who is brushing his teeth. One cup of water is enough.

For many Japanese, this is very funny - a scene right out of childhood.

Dr. YUKO KAWANISHI (Psychology and Education Associate Professor, Tokyo Gakugei University): This is incredible. Mottainai Grandma.

KESTENBAUM: Yuko Kawanishi is the sociologist at Tokyo Gakugei University.

Dr. KAWANISHI: (Japanese spoken)

KESTENBAUM: She reads from a page. Grandma clearly loves the boy but she also has a compulsive need to ring every bit of usefulness from an object. Crumpled paper? Make a dinosaur. Leftover pencil stubs? Draw a rainbow.

Dr. KAWANISHI: I don't think my grandmother was this harsh but she used to think the exactly the same way.

KESTENBAUM: On one page, the grandson has some rice left on his plate. Grandma says, let me lick it off. Her grandson squirmed.

Dr. KAWANISHI: And she licked my face all over. Yuck, I shouted. But she kept saying, mottainai, let me lick bowl. Lick. Lick. Lick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: This is not some ancient Japanese notion that was lost thousands of years ago. People told me this had been drilled into them at childhood. Finish your rice.

Our interpreter Junko Takahashi told me over dinner that she was told as a kid she would go blind if she didn't eat every grain. And she still remembers one evening, at age four or five, when she could not finish her rice - her little stomach was just too full.

Ms. JUNKO TAKAHASHI (Interpreter): So I start crying, crying and crying and then I said, Father, I cannot eat all of them. But my father said, no, you have to eat them all, otherwise you cannot go to bed. And then all my families, everybody finished the meal and then they went to bed. And I said, my father was sleeping, and I was still crying in front of the rice, and then I went to my father. I said, Father, I still cannot eat the rice. And my father said, I don't know. You have to finish them. Since then, I cannot leave the rice, still now, after, like, over 30 years? But still, I cannot leave the rice. So it's kind of traumatic.

KESTENBAUM: Ah, where does virtue end and neurosis begin?

Mottainai is an old Buddhist word. Yuko Kawanishi, the sociologist, says it also ties in with the Shinto idea that objects have souls.

Dr. KAWANISHI: The whole idea that we are part of the nature and therefore we should be in a very harmonious relationship with the nature. It's very much a deep part of the Japanese people's psychology.

KESTENBAUM: But mottainai also stems from some tough realities. Japan has little in the way of natural resources. So it traditionally has had to import. Until recently, Japan was relative poor. No longer.

(Soundbite of children talking)

KESTENBAUM: Tokyo can be overwhelming even if you're from New York. It's like being inside a giant pinball machine. Some streets are so brightly lit it's hard to tell outside from inside, day from night. And the truth is that Japan's carbon emissions are up since 1990, even though it has pledged to reduce them, even though the population is flat and expected to drop.

Throughout the country, there are more apartment buildings, more offices, more appliances and electronics. But the idea of mottainai is still down there in the cultural DNA somewhere. It's not uncommon for people to reuse water from their evening bath in their laundry machines. And in Japan, a trashcan is not just a trashcan, it's three or more - one for bottles, one for cans - to recycle.

There seem to be two ideas sitting uncomfortably in the same brain. One, I should not waster, and two, I want what the modern world has to offer - like maybe a Hummer.

(Soundbite of engine running)

KESTENBAUM: I visited the Hummer dealership in Tokyo and ran into Fujimura Ikuzo, a 33-year-old hipster designer with a ponytail. He says he'd like to own a Hummer but it won't fit in his parking space.

Mr. FUJIMURA IKUZO (Hipster designer): I actually measured my parking spot.

KESTENBAUM: Hybrid cars sell well in Japan but he says they're not for him.

Mr. IKUZO: Yeah, it's a nice, you know. They run a lot of distance for a small gasoline. But it's boring, you know.

KESTENBAUM: You worry about climate change?

Mr. IKUZO: Yes.

KESTENBAUM: Ikuzo says it is cool to be environmentally conscious here. He reuses his bath water to wash out his paintbrushes.

Mr. IKUZO: Like, you know, small thing that I can do because I waste a lot of gasoline, you know, I try to make up, you know, with balance.

KESTENBAUM: And this really is one of the central dilemmas the world faces with climate change. How much should everyone sacrifice? Do we need to sacrifice? It's hard to take The pulse of a country but those "Mottainai Grandma" books do seem to have struck a chord. They're selling well - over 400,000 copies.

Ms. MORIKO SHINJU (Author and Illustrator, "Mottainai Grandma"): Hi, my name is Moriko Shinju, and I am author and illustrator for "Mottainai Grandma."

KESTENBAUM: I met Shinju at her publisher's office, a top floor of a tall building with views of concrete Tokyo in all direction. She told me she wrote the book because her 4-year-old son didn't understand why it was so important to finish his food.

Do you think that mottainai is something that's sort of been forgotten?

Ms. SHINJU: Yeah.

(Through translator) Our parents taught us what is mottainai so that we know what it means, but if we don't teach them to our children, they don't know. And then I think that it's a very scary thing. And that's why I thought we have to make effort to teach the idea and to change the situation.

KESTENBAUM: Magazines and newspapers are now asking Shinju to draw and write "Mottainai Grandma" stories for them. There's also a CD of children songs.

(Soundbite of music)

KESTENBAUM: This pushy, dancing grandma is not the only one reeducating the Japanese about mottainai. There's also Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She's not Japanese. She's from Kenya, Africa, but she's become a kind of celebrity here, teaching the Japanese about their own word.

Yuko Kawanishi, the sociologist, said this sort of thing happens all the time. Japan discards an idea as it Westernizes and it takes someone from outside to say, you know, you had something interesting there.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: As you just heard, rice is precious in Japan as it is throughout Asia. Tonight in ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, you can hear how rice actually contributes to global warming. And you can get more stories on climate change in this month's issue of National Geographic magazine.

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