Mottainai for Swachh Bharat

Mottainai for Swachh Bharat

An aversion to wastefulness is ingrained in the Japanese people. Japan has suffered from the consequences of pollution, it can help India avoid that fate.

air pollution, air quality index, garbage recycle, Swachh Bharat campaign, eco-friendly vehicles, hybrid vehicles, toxic air, indian express
We were unaware and blindsided by the consequences of pollution. It was unprecedented, so we had no references to draw on. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

MOTTAINAI is a Japanese word that literally means “wasteful”. It is used to express dismay at wasteful actions. This single word clearly conveys the feeling of veneration that the Japanese people have towards the environment, and their firm resolve to protect it. Indeed, the spirit of “mottainai” is embedded in the DNA of the Japanese people.

I believe many Indians are now familiar with this word too. Some have been introduced to the endearing “Mottainai Grandma” in the recently published Hindi-English bilingual edition of the book authored by Mariko Shinju. Others may recall the renowned Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Muta Maathai, who adopted “mottainai” as a shining motto for making the world a more environmentally friendly place.

In Japan, children are taught to eat every last grain of rice in their bowl, because even a single grain is too precious to be wasted, given the energy and resources invested in producing it. This attitude is deeply rooted into the ancient Japanese belief of Shintoism, which says that God is everywhere in nature, including the trees, mountains, and rice fields. As such, Japanese people perceive nature to be sacred. This sense of reverence towards nature, I understand, is also shared by the Indian people, since the environment is deeply embedded into the scriptures of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Cherishing the “mottainai” spirit, Japan has cultivated a culture that follows the 3Rs: reduce (garbage), reuse, and recycle. One practical example of the 3Rs is the segregation of garbage. In Japan, it is obligatory to sort garbage before throwing it away. All garbage must be segregated into combustible and non-combustible piles; recyclable items must also be separated. This has become a habit, and it is done naturally and autonomously by each family as a regular activity. Also of note, the highly technologically-advanced and clean waste incineration facilities in Japan are a striking sight: They can be found standing proudly in the middle of immaculately clean cities as they themselves contribute, albeit indirectly, to protecting the clear blue skies.


Japanese people strive to live harmoniously with the environment, and Japan is actively assisting India in carrying forward its “Swachh Bharat” (Clean India) campaign. As a strong supporter of Swachh Bharat, I would like to convey three messages:

First and most importantly, to raise awareness and mobilise the public, no tool works more efficiently and effectively than the education system and the network it wields. To reinforce our commitment towards the environment as a precious entity on which our survival depends, the youth must be encouraged to imbibe the “mottainai” spirit.

In this regard, Japan proposed the concept of “Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)” at the Earth Summit in 2002. ESD requires every student to consider the numerous challenges that are being faced today by the global community, like environmental pollution and climate change, as their own challenges, and to take the actions they think are necessary to solve them. Such actions need not be complicated: We can start here and now by cherishing every single grain of rice, segregating trash and recyclables, and more.

Second, let me share our experiences with you. It is often forgotten that Japan also once suffered from severe environmental pollution. In the late 1950s and 1960s, Japan enjoyed a period of high economic growth, riding on the booming heavy and chemical industries sector. Excitement and anticipation filled the air. Unfortunately, we were unaware and blindsided by the consequences of pollution. It was unprecedented, so we had no references to draw on. The most devastating impact was the toll on human health. Smoke from factories polluted city air, and water became toxic after chemical plants released mercury into the river. People suffered. We needed to take decisive action, and everybody, including the government, companies, civil society groups, and individuals, had to play a role in the solution. It took much time and incurred many costs, but Japan eventually succeeded in reclaiming its blue sky and clean water.

Environmental problems still exist in the world, but there are many previous examples that India can use as references. Japan will always stand beside India, eager to cooperate in finding solutions to avoid the same kind of suffering that we experienced.

Third, a key solution is technology. During the period of heavy pollution in Japan, Japanese companies developed numerous state-of-the-art technologies to help reverse the situation. Even today, Japan’s drive for developing environmentally-friendly technologies remains as strong as ever. Technology for suppressing the production of dioxins released from garbage incineration is one such example. The harnessing of biomass energy from agricultural residues is another area in which Japanese companies are making enormous headway. Japan has also become a world leader when it comes to electric vehicles: It was the first country to start mass-producing the vehicles, and improved models are continually being released, for example, a new model from Nissan can run 400 km with just a single charge. Japan also has a long history of producing eco-friendly hybrid vehicles. With Toyota as a front-runner, hybrid vehicles readily serve towards achieving a cleaner society.

Recently, the Embassy of Japan in India launched the “Blue Sky Initiatives”, which aim to mitigate air pollution by ensuring that the best and latest technologies will be made available to India. For instance, exhaust from coal thermal power plants is one of the primary causes of air pollution in India. Japanese companies have developed equipment that can filter out particulate matter. In the future, we expect even more advanced applications of Japanese technology to help improve the environment.

Japan and India now enjoy an unprecedented level of mutual trust and friendship. With immense confidence in the ability and commitment of the Indian government and its people in combating environmental pollution, Japan is eager to deepen our cooperation in this field. By combining Indian resolve with the technological expertise of Japan, the two nations can win the fight against pollution and regain cleaner and greener environment.