Japan's 'waste not, want not' philosophy has deep religious and cultural roots, from monsters and meditation to Marie Kondo's tidying up

The word “waste” is often frightening. People fear not making the most of their time, whether at work or at leisure, and failing to live life to the fullest.

Warnings against waste run especially deep in Japanese culture. Many Americans are familiar with the famous decluttering technique of organization guru Marie Kondo, who wrote “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Travelers to Japan may hear the classic expression “mottainai,” which means “don’t be wasteful” or “what a waste.” There are even gods, spirits and monsters, or “yokai,” associated with waste, cleanliness and respect for material goods.

As a scholar of Asian philosophy and religions, I believe the popularity of “mottainai” expresses an ideal more than a reality. Japan is not always known for being environmentally conscious, but its anti-waste values are deeply held. These traditions have been shaped by centuries-old Buddhist and Shinto teachings about inanimate objects’ interconnectedness with humans that continue to influence culture today.

Soot sprites and ceiling lickers

The idea of avoiding waste is closely tied to ideas of tidiness, which has a whole host of spirits and rituals in Japanese culture. Fans of the famous animator Hayao Miyazaki may recall the cute little soot sprites made of dust in his films “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away.” Then there’s the ceiling licker, “tenjōname”: a tall monster with a long tongue said to eat up the filth that accumulates in hard-to-reach places.

“Oosouji,” or “big cleaning,” is an end-of-year household ritual. Previously known as “susuharai” or “soot sweeping,” it is more than a chance to tidy up. The rite is believed to expel the negativity of the previous year while welcoming the Shinto god Toshigami: a major deity, considered grandson of the gods who created the islands of Japan – and who brings good luck for the new year.

Out with the defiled and old, in with the purified and new.