Use and Meaning of Mottainai(もったいない):Another good phrase you can throw into your Japanese conversation is “Mottainai” (もったいない). 

In this article, we’ll take a look at what it means, literally and otherwise, and what it might have to do with Japanese culture. If you’re unsure about how or when to use this phrase, you’ve come to the right place. 

What Does Mottainai(もったいない) Mean (Literally)?

As is usual with these phrases that are a bit less straightforward to translate, it helps to look at the kanji to figure out what they mean. You should remember, however, that you’re most likely only going to see this phrase written in kana, if it’s written at all. It’s another one of those phrases that’s usually only spoken.

But the kanji still might help us translate this one. Written in kanji, “Mottainai” is 勿体無い(Mottainai(もったいない)). First off, the third character is just the kanji for “nai,” the negative form of “aru,” and so it means “there isn’t.”

If we look up the first two characters, they mean “air of importance” or “overimportance,” according to our handy dictionary. 

When we put these two together, it can be a bit confusing. “Without an air of importance” and “Without overimportance” are both pretty confusing phrases. So what does this phrase actually mean?

What Does Mottainai(もったいない) Mean (Not Literally)?

I’ve seen this one translated a few different ways. Among the most popular are phrases like “What a waste,” “Wasteful,” and “Unnecessarily.” There’s a few different ways to use this.

You can use it in the same way English speakers use the phrase “What a waste!”(Mottainai(もったいない)) It usually has a feeling of regret for whatever was lost. If you’re painting and you accidentally got a ton of blue paint on your palate that you can’t use, mottainai. If you’re friend paid for a whole bag of popcorn and threw it out after eating half a handful, mottainai. Anything that could have been useful, but you’ve lost for some reason is mottainai.

The other way you can use this is similar to the English phrase “It’s wasted on me.” This is one we don’t really use nowadays, so I’ll explain it a bit. Imagine someone gives you a gift. Let’s pretend it’s a really amazing gift and it’s from someone who completely outranks you socially, like your boss. Telling the person “mottainai” in this situation is a way you can say, “Thank you, this gift is really amazing, and I can’t believe you did this for me, even though I am hopelessly unworthy.” 

You might think this is a negative response to a gift, but in Japanese, it isn’t. Remember that Japanese is all about elevating the person you’re speaking to and humbling yourself. Also remember that it’s polite to refuse something at least twice when it’s offered to you. So thanking someone with a phrase like “mottainai” is actually humbling yourself in an appropriate way. 

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Mottainai(もったいない) –This One Is Cultural Too

As with pretty much all of these useful phrases, “Mottainai” ties into Japanese culture and a mindset held by many Japanese people. But it’s not even an idea that’s inherently Japanese. I remember my parents being very insistent that I finish all the food on my plate and not waste it, and you may have had a similar experience.

“Mottainai” is all about regret for something that was lost. It’s about the idea that everything has a purpose, and it’s important to try to use things to their full potential. This includes everything from the food on your plate to your effort in doing something. 

Even though this isn’t exclusively Japanese, this idea has a big role in Japanese society. You can see it just by looking at how trash is sorted and recycled. In America we just have trash and recyclables, but in Japan things are separated further into types of plastic, burnable garbage, and non-burnable, in order to recycle it more efficiently.  

This is just one example, but if you look further into it, you’ll find a lot. Japanese people really value nature, time, and other things that can be easily wasted, so it’s good to have a mindset that avoids wasting things.

If anything does get wasted, it’s a good time for you to share that regret and use the phrase “Mottainai.” 

Do you understand “Mottainai(もったいない)” in Japanese?

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