‘Mottainai Grandma’ spreads her environmental message in new cartoon series | The Japan Times

Julia Marino
5 min readJul 10, 2020
Waste not, want not: Mariko Shinju’s Mottainai Grandma character teaches children how to avoid being wasteful and to be respectful of other people and the environment. | © MOTTAINAI GRANDMA PROJECT

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.”

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Julia Marino

Let's make the world better, one step, one breath, one bite at a time. life designer. food lover. nature explorer. seeing beauty in the imperfect.