When author and illustrator Mariko Shinju’s son was 4 years old, he left food on his plate. Like many Japanese mothers, Shinju said to him, “Mottainai.”

“What is mottainai, Mom?” he asked innocently.

Although she grew up hearing her mother and grandmother say “mottainai,” she couldn’t find the right words to explain what it meant. It was just something that was said to express disappointment at a waste of food or other things. So instead, she picked up a pen and began to draw.

What emerged on the page was the story of Mottaianai Baasan, “Mottainai Grandma” in English, a wise and funky old woman who takes a young boy on a journey to show him the virtues of mindful consumption.

“The model of the grandma’s face is Buddha,” Shinju tells The Japan Times. “Buddha’s eyes are half-open and you don’t always know where Buddha is looking, but Buddha sees everything. Mottainai Grandma also has half-opened eyes, so if you are doing something mottainai, (she) will see it all and come to you.”

A mottainai lifestyle is more than just eating what’s on your plate, though. It’s also a call to action echoing the more modern mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” with an added fourth “R” — “respect.”

Teachable moment: Mariko Shinju created the 'Mottainai Grandma' series as a way to teach her own son about wastefulness. | © MOTTAINAI GRANDMA PROJECT
Teachable moment: Mariko Shinju created the ‘Mottainai Grandma’ series as a way to teach her own son about wastefulness. | © MOTTAINAI GRANDMA PROJECT

“All lives are connected and each one of them is precious,” Shinju says. “If we have a sharing mindset instead of being selfish, we can make this world a better place with the heart of mottainai. It is about being filled with gratitude, kindness, affection and respect for the people who made (the item).”

Shinju admits, however, that she herself wasn’t always so strict with making her son clean his plate. “Sometimes, when in rush, I would tell him to ‘just finish up, leave the remains on the plate if you need to,'” she says. “Since we’re surrounded by cheap goods, if something breaks, it’s cheaper to buy a new one rather than fix it. I realized my child might grow up not understanding the meaning of mottainai. I was afraid of what would happen to our society if all children became accustomed to throwing away disposable items and grew up to become people who didn’t care about food.”

According to the United Nations, every year one third of global food production is wasted and roughly 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Shinju realized that by teaching children about the importance of being mindful of waste and respecting their surroundings, perhaps it could have a positive impact, however small, on the environment.

She knew that she had hit on a good idea with “Mottainai Grandma” when her son enthusiastically asked her to read her self-made book over and over again.

“I thought maybe this story would be enjoyed by other kids,” she says. “I decided to create the picture book in the hopes that it would make children think with their hearts.”

Since releasing the first of the “Mottainai Grandma” series in 2004, Shinju has published a total of 17 installments and sold more than 1 million copies, which are read by children all over the world including those in South Korea, Thailand, China, France and India.

One installment in particular, “Mottainai Grandma Goes to the River,” inspired by her visit to the Ganges River in India, became the catalyst to turning the books into an animated series. In this story, Mottainai Grandma stops a boy from throwing a plastic bottle into a river, and together they follow a “baby river” to the ocean where they save other “babies” by collecting plastic waste.

In March 2019, Shinju released “Mottainai Grandma Goes to the River,” which captured the attention of Sanjay Kumar Verma, the Indian ambassador to Japan. Soon after, Verma joined Environment Minister Tadahiko Ito and Yoshiaki Koga, a project manager for India at Shinju’s publisher, Kodansha, for dinner in Tokyo. When Verma was asked about how to promote “Mottainai Grandma” in India, an idea came to him. Why not animate the books to engage even more children in conversations about recycling, wastefulness and looking after the environment? Verma took this a step further by proposing to align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal program (SDG 12), which strives to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.”

“I had always wanted to make animation series to let many people know the message of Mottainai Grandma,” Shinju says. With support from Japan’s Environment Ministry, Kodansha and members of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, including All Nippon Airways (ANA), which agreed to screen the anime series on ANA flights, Shinju was able to realize that dream.

On June 5, World Environment Day, the “Mottainai Grandma” anime series was released for free on its website and YouTube. It is currently available in English and Japanese, and will also be available in French, Spanish, Chinese and Hindi later this summer.

The series of five-minute episodes are adapted from four books: “Mottainai Grandma,” “Mottainai Grandma: Let’s Eat with Gratitude,” “Mottainai Grandma Goes to Magic Land” and “Mottainai Grandma Goes to the River.” Each episode ends with a song and dance that features Grandma singing, “Are you doing anything mottainai?”

“This is an era where things are abundant, so you might not think about what is mottainai,” says Keiko Toda, who voices the Japanese version of Mottainai Grandma, as well as other kid-friendly characters such as Anpanman and Thomas the Tank Engine. “Mothers and fathers should also see this story, not just to say ‘mottainai’ to scold the children, but to understand why something is mottainai. I hope they will understand there is a good reason.”

Shinju adds that being more mindful of the environment is an important part of life amid a global pandemic as well. “Before we try to restore our lives to how it used to be, we should aim for a better world than before,” she says. “I would like to move forward by giving priority to what we should do to live and finding ways to make everyone happy in a sustainable society that protects the environment.”

Under the kind but watchful eyes of Mottainai Grandma, every day can be an opportunity to make the world a better place by respecting the environment.

“Mottainai Grandma” is streaming online in English at mottainai-baasan.com/en.

In a previous version of this story, a quote by Mariko Shinju about teaching her son the importance of being mindful of waste was mistranslated. It has been corrected. Additionally, the publication date and language for “Mottainai Grandma Goes to the River” was given incorrectly. The book was published in March 2019 in Japanese.

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