designer. researcher. educator.


Mottainai: Japan’s Modern Waste Management

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Modern Japanese waste management systems have privileged technological solutions (e.g. Waste-to-Energy systems) over anthropological solutions (behavior change). Using Tanaka Shozo’s Fundamental River Law, I argue that the current strategies to manage waste does not flow with the way of nature which has caused, and will cause future, environmental and social problems. Tanaka Shozo, Japan’s first conservationist, developed an ecological theory called “Konponteki Kasenho” (Tanaka’s Fundamental River Law) and philosophies of “doku” (poison) and “nagare” (flow), which describes “the harm that comes from ignoring the dictates of an active nature in the name of absolute human agency” (Stolz 2007). Shozo argued that attempts to control natural flows (nagare) will result in accumulation of nature’s energy in a harmful way (doku). While Tanaka proposed this theory as a way to preserve lands and protect people poisoned from copper mines in the Kanto region of Japan in the late 1800s, I apply this theory to Japan’s current waste management strategies. I examine how waste has impacted Japan’s landscapes and communities and suggest promoting traditional Japanese concepts such as “mottainai” to change attitudes and behaviors towards waste. Mottainai is a word of Buddhist and Shinto origins, and in English translates to “what a waste” or “don’t be wasteful”. It reflects a spiritual veneration of objects; it is believed that all natural and human made objects and resources have intrinsic value (Minobe 1982, Taylor 2011).  

 I examine the waste management strategies of three cities in Japan: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Aya. Tokyo is uniquely situated as a place of waste creation and leader in environmental sustainability. As part of its 10-year climate change strategy, Tokyo aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 2000 level by 2020. Since 1997 Kyoto has become well known in Japan for being a leader in sustainability. In 2008 Kyoto adopted a plan to become the Environmental Model City (EMC), with a commitment to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Aya town is in the southeastern region of the southern island of Kyushu Japan and it is best known for Aya forest, a world UNESCO Heritage site. The city’s philosophy is “to create a vibrant city in harmony with nature” (Terauchi 2009) and practices this through focusing on community participation and engagement, working in and with nature, and land preservation (Terauchi 2009).