The Return of Mottainai Ghost

Updated: Jan 14

The Return of the ​Mottainai​Ghost

By. Aya Abe

The sense of mottainai grew on me as I was raised in Japanese culture. “That is very

mottainai. Never waste a grain of rice, or you will lose your sight”, my grandma in Japan tells me even today when I leave some rice on my plate, based on the ‘Mr. Manners’ habit I brought from America. I know I won’t lose my sight just because I don’t eat the last bite of a sticky rice, but her unwavering confidence is somewhat intimidating, even for a grown up college student.

Often, mottainai is defined as “wasteful” in Japanese to English dictionaries. The sense of mottainai, however, has more to it. A word, mottainai has a somewhat mystical aspect. In Japanese culture, people believe that non-living objects “receive souls, and, like all things with individual souls, develop independent spirits” (Reider 232). Thus, “wasting” is considered disrespectful towards the spirit that lives in the object. Many stories similar to the mottainai ghost are often used for teaching children the value of things such as food and natural resources. Mottainai, therefore, is a very environmentally friendly idea that prevents people from “wasting.” As the abundance of material goods increased in post-war Japan, however, many people forgot the idea of mottainai.

It was after the Tohoku Earthquake in 2011 that the Mottainai ghost returned to Japan. Tokyo Electric Power Company owns a large number of nuclear plants in Northern Japan, and the company is the main provider of energy for people in Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures. After the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant was damaged and could no longer produce energy, people in the Tokyo region experienced a power blackout that lasted for several days. The country was in urgent need of cutting the energy use in the Tokyo area. A large energy saving movement, known as the Setsuden, began.

Soon after the earthquake, the government required large companies to save energy. For example, according to the company website, JR East, the largest railway company in Japan, immediately decreased the number of trains on less popular lines. Soon, most light bulbs used on the trains, at train stations, and offices were changed to LED lights; escalators at the train stations were stopped. In addition, the company increased the trains’ room temperature by 2°C. Before the Setsuden movement, the inside air temperature of trains was freezing cold during spring and summer. It was kept cold for the main users of the train, Japanese businessmen known as “salary men.” The contemporary style of a salary man is to wear black long sleeve suits with a long tie and a pair of leather shoes. In many cases, companies require them to wear the long sleeve suits throughout the year, including summer. JR East’s new policy to increase 2°C inside of the train, therefore, was frowned upon by many train users.

Around the same time, many companies in the Tokyo region started to change their policies. In 2005, the Ministry of the Environment had come up with a campaign known as “Cool Biz.” The aim of the campaign was to encourage companies to create environmentally friendly workspaces where people could “work comfortably even in a room at 28 degrees C” ( Originally, it was the government’s attempt at decreasing the country’s emission of greenhouse gasses. After the Tohoku Earthquake, however, the Ministry of the Environment intensified its call, and renamed the campaign to “Super Cool Biz.” In response to the campaign, some companies introduced the “no jacket, no tie” policy, in which businessmen were allowed to stop wearing contemporary business attire. Others introduced comfortable summer uniforms. The Setsuden movement largely affected people’s lifestyles at work.

The mass media took an emotional approach to encourage people to participate in Setsuden at individual levels. Media often used the argument that saving energy shows consumers’ protests against the use of nuclear power plant, thus mentally supporting victims affected by the Tohoku Earthquake. During the Setsuden movement, the bandwagon approach was also often used. In Nojima Corporation’s Setsuden commercial, an anonymous narrator argued that everyone’s contribution to Setsuden was needed in order to brighten the Japanese nation as a whole. In another commercial used by Hitachi, the most popular idol group in Japan showed their own ways of saving energy and induced the audience to join the Setsuden movement. The leading newspaper companies often featured articles about Setsuden. For example, during summer of

2011, Tokyo Shinbun published online articles introducing methods for saving energy on a daily basis. After the earthquake, Setsuden was everywhere. Saving energy became something inevitable for people living in Tokyo.

Despite Tokyo’s challengingly hot summer, people could avoid energy shortages. According to Tokyo Electric Power Company, the net energy demand from large companies decreased by 29% and small companies by 19%, while that of common households decreased by 11.8% on the hottest day of the summer of 2011; this compared to the previous year. The amount of electricity used by the residents and companies in Tokyo showed a large decline. What aspects of Japanese culture made this possible?

One of the reasons that the Setsuden movement ended in success was deeply associated with Japanese samurai culture, in which “lord and vassal” relationships are important. A person with higher social rank has absolute power, and one must obey whatever the person asks. This may sound like an exaggeration, but lord and vassal relationships often have huge impacts on Japanese people’s social lives. For example, in Japanese news programs, we often hear a word, Karoshi. According to British Medical Journal, Karoshi are deaths from circulatory diseases caused by overwork and stress. The article reports that in 1990, close to 45% of Japanese salary men worked over 50 hours a week. Westerners often ask why people don’t stop working before killing themselves. In Japanese society, however, it is an unspoken agreement to obey the people who have higher rank, and those in power, knowing this, often put enormous pressures on people

below them. When political pressure forced companies to participate in the Setsuden movement, employees had no choice but to follow their supervisors’ decisions. After the Setsuden movement ended, Panasonic Japan’s survey reported that about one in every three people felt social pressure when participating in the movement. If the lord and vassal relationship was the only cause of success in Setsuden movement, however, people might have stopped saving energy at individual levels, where there were no supervisors.

The Japanese government and large companies successfully spread the idea that energy is a limited resource, and wasting energy impacts everyone in a harmful way. Japanese culture is often described as a collectivist culture, as the authors of the book, “The Japanese Today” states, “from the main stem of language out to the latest transient fad, the Japanese are a thoroughly homogeneous people.” Because they have to fit in the society, Japanese people are very sensitive to the eye of others and their own reputations. In the case of the Setsuden movement, if the person lived in Tokyo, the surrounding environment intensely depicted energy as being scarce, and therefore to waste energy was bad. In addition, saving energy was often tied with a good cause, such as mentally supporting the victims. If one did not follow the movement, which was

thought to be beneficial to everyone in the society, the person was likely to be left out or

ostracized by the society. This ethnic characteristic explains why people participated in the Setsuden on the individual level.

The various pressures applied from the society explain much of the reasons Japanese people successfully reduced net energy use in the summer of 2011. It was, indeed, a formidable movement that involved public institutions and work places. However, many people took it as an opportunity to reconsider their attitudes toward limited resources after the Setsuden movement was over. According to a survey conducted by Dentsu Corporation, in 2012, there was an approximately 30% increase in the number of people interested in environmental issues compared to the previous year. In addition after the Setsuden movement, people’s interests in conserving fossil fuels and water increased. Another survey conducted by Panasonic Japan showed that more people put their effort in conserving water, recycling and reducing food wastes one year after the Tohoku Earthquake compared to 2011. The Setsuden movement shed light on the importance of conserving natural resources. The forgotten Mottainai ghosts had come back to


In the case of the Japanese Setsuden movement, “wasting” had been ignored until the

earthquake struck Fukushima and people were forced to save energy. When electricity became scarce, people realized that natural resources such as trees and fuels are also mottainai when used too much. In societies where material goods are abundant, we tend to forget that there are only a limited amount of resources on the earth.

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