THE BLOG

Mottainai!

02/02/2015 12:38 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

The Japanese have long engaged me in various concepts that somehow resonate and shape my thoughts about how to live in this world. For example, In Praise of Shadows, a telling essay on Japanese aesthetics by Junichiro Tanizaki, awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature, describes the appreciation of that ephemeral space where light meets dark, where bright contradictions give way to an inarticulate aura that is both complicated and simple, a dusky reconciliation of forces or ideas, a place where illusive harmony may be found if you are open to looking for it. This is the essence of the observation that a Japanese, looking into a bowl of rice, can see the shadow of each individual grain.

Wabi-Sabi is another such concept: the value of a patina of use found in Nature, in abandoned places, and in artistic traditions, raised to an aesthetic transcendence that resonates and inspires appreciation for the elegance of utility and its meaning. These insights have purpose for defense against the raucous, unrelenting chaos of modern life. The antidote is found where? In Zen meditation, in adherence to tradition in the face of accelerating change, or the search for an alternative set of values to inform and found a different future.

The ocean represents such a healing space. It is of course a constant presentation of motion and light, a theater of sight and sound and feeling that draws us to and into it for recreation in every sense of that word and activity. Why do we continue to migrate to the coast the world over, which somehow soothes and lifts our spirits even if we don't know why?

There is another Japanese term that pertains: Mottainai, derived from a Buddhist term that referred to the essence of things. In a catalogue essay, Mottainai: The Fabric of Life, for an exhibition of traditional Japanese textiles at the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon, Curator Diane Durston writes,

Applied to everything in the physical universe, the word suggests that objects do not exist in isolation but are intrinsically linked to one another. "Nai" 無い is a negation, so "mottainai" is an expression of sadness for the disrespect that is shown when any living or non-living entity is wasted. "Mottainai!" parents say, admonishing their children not to waste a grain of rice or a scrap of paper. In a land where natural resources have always been scarce, people have long understood the importance of respecting the value of all things and of wasting nothing. It was the only way to survive in less affluent times.

Wangari Maathai, founder of the Greenbelt Movement in Africa, democracy advocate, political activist, and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, responded to the mottonai concept during a visit to Japan and used it as focus for her call for an international campaign to reduce waste and recycle what we can that has continued after her death in 2011. To learn more about and to support this effort, visit www.greenbeltmovement.org.

There is yet another Japanese phrase: Satoumi, defined on its website as follows:

In Japanese, "SATO" means the area where people live, and "UMI" means the sea. Satoumi is an important sea-area that has been supporting culture and cultural exchanges through such things as fisheries and the distribution of products. It is an area that includes both Nature and human beings, as well as an area in which both high biological productivity and biodiversity are expected. Healthy Satoumi provides numerous blessings: when the natural circulation function is appropriately maintained, when integrated and comprehensive management of the land and coastal area is performed, and when the rich and diversified ecosystem and natural environment are conserved. This 'preferable coastal area environment' must be maintained with the cooperation of more people in order to accede this precious environment to future generations.

So all this conceptual language may translate to describe a new strategy for our relationship with the ocean: a place that reflects the outcome of our use, that respects and sustains the value of Nature, and that integrates and reconciles human needs and natural resources for the future of all mankind.

Mottonai!