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Updated: Jun 13, 2023


by Paul Akers

I could regale you with hundreds of stories that elucidate the uniqueness of the Japanese culture. Each of my experiences has slowly and methodically shaped my opinion of what Japan is all about. I believe you would find all these experiences interesting and supportive of my thesis. However, the purpose of this book is not to tell you everything but to whet your appetite and stimulate your curiosity in hopes you might find some benefit to deploy elements of Japanese thinking into your own life. If you should be fortunate enough to travel to Japan and study and learn about this culture, I think your life would be enhanced.

As of the writing of this book, I have trained over 500 people from around the world in Japan. I have crisscrossed Japan in trains, planes, automobiles, and even motorcycles. I have met and worked with some of the top leaders and thinkers. I have lead groups through factories, businesses, and construction sites to demonstrate, illustrate, and contrast what makes the Japanese culture so unique. I have seen people literally in tears and speechless after walking out of Toyota and Lexus facilities, shaking their heads in disbelief, stating that what they saw was impossible. But of all the places and spectacular manufacturing facilities that I’ve shown to people, nothing has made a bigger or lasting impact than visiting a Japanese elementary school.

This is where we pull back the curtain to understand this amazing culture. It is the children of Japan that grow up to be the leaders that sustain this culture. At school, they are not managing the tardiness or misbehavior of the students. They are not cajoling, prodding, or pleading with the children to behave and learn. They are not disciplining kids because of bullying or an unhealthy obsession with their cell phones. They have a zero bullying policy and cell phones are not allowed. Instead, you see thoughtful, calm, rational adults that are treating children as adults. Every day the children come together to learn, grow, and improve. There is a kata (routine) that happens every day in Japanese schools. There are no janitors, with the exception of those doing specialized work such as cleaning windows in multi-story buildings. Otherwise, the children clean the schools from the toilets, the sinks, the cafeteria, the hallways, the windows, the coat rooms, the playground, to the gardens. In most countries, this would be considered child abuse. In Japan, this kind of work wells up from the philosophy within this culture, showing deep respect for people and things. When it’s lunchtime, the magic begins. Hundreds of students come into a cafeteria. They are well behaved and sit respectfully as team leaders from every table serve them their lunch. As the food is distributed, not one child eats a single morsel until everyone is served and the prayer of gratefulness is given.

Then a student explains what the food is that they’re about to eat and nutrition they will gain from the food. There are no sugary drinks or sugary desserts, there is just healthy vegetables, rice, and fish to eat and milk to drink. Each child eats the food that is given and if there is a chance they will not be able to eat all the food, before they ever touch their plate, they stand up and go over to the food serving area and explain what food they would like removed respectfully from their plate so it is not wasted. Then they proceed back to their table where they eat all the food on their plate. At the end of the meal, everyone works together to clean up the entire cafeteria. What is so remarkable is that there is almost no wasted food. There is no large trash can where they dispose food that has gone uneaten. That would be mottainai!

I would like to end this book by discussing my favorite Japanese word, the word that has made the most profound impact on my thinking: mottainai. It simply means to have a deep sense of regret when you waste anything. If they leave a grain of rice on the plate, that is mottainai. If they leave the water running when they brush their teeth, that is mottainai. When children demonstrate a supreme stewardship over the resources that they have been given, even down to a wasted grain of rice, it is extraordinary! Since I have learned this word, mottainai, and have seen the deep meaning of it played out in schools across this country, my thinking has forever changed. In everything I do the word mottainai rings in my ears. What a pity to waste! Why would I throw in the trash the effort the farmer has spent to provide food. Why would I waste the precious resources of my country? Why would I be so careless with the time and thoughtfulness of another human being on my behalf? This is the mottainai thinking and this thinking has changed me forever.

(...) mottainai. It simply means to have a deep sense of regret when you waste anything.

One time I interviewed a nun who was the head administrator at a Christian school in Japan. The fact that there are Christian schools in a culture that is largely Shinto and Buddhist, should give everyone pause. How could this be? Every day the children learn about Christianity, say the Lord’s Prayer, and yet they are not Christian.

This is a giant enigma, so difficult to understand, but so Japanese. They are learning about other cultures, languages, and religions and they do it all with smiles on their faces. They’re not threatened by the idea of Christianity spreading rapidly across their country. Rather they are elevating themselves in their thinking and understanding as they learn about other cultures. The Christians who are managing these schools are not forcing their religious practices on the children, rather they are respectfully teaching and training them. In any other culture, you would expect tension or an insular attitude toward other cultures and beliefs, but in Japan, it is not the case. As we were walking down the hallways and watching the children happily clean the entire school, I stopped to greet the head nun and ask a few questions. Why did she like Japan? She explained she had lived there for 40 years and was originally from Canada. She told me that Japan is so safe, so peaceful, and a beautiful country. She said, “I like the people very much and they’re good people, very good people.” When she travels home to Canada periodically and returns back to Japan she always tells people, “I am back”.

There is something very special about this country! It all comes down to a single grain of rice. Why would you throw a single grain of rice in the trash? That single grain represents the effort of a single individual who planted the seed, nurtured the seed, irrigated the seed, harvested the seed, and transported rice to villages, schools, and cities across the country. Wrapped up in that single grain of rice is the word mottainai. What a pity to waste anything. It is with this single idea that this culture and country has differentiated itself from the rest of the world. It is with this single idea that my life and my company were transformed. Toyota understood that they could not be wasteful and survive. They had to find a way to eliminate the waste from all of their processes. This elimination of waste was not a weekly or monthly process, but a daily process that required total participation from everyone in the organization. We eliminate this waste through the daily kaizen and the fundamental principle that propels us to eliminate this waste is mottainai!

Lastly, I am deeply grateful to the Japanese people for all they have taught me. At the core, they are very simple people who have deployed a beautiful and effective philosophy about the way they live.

At the same time, the simplicity of how they live out this beautiful stewardship allows them to deploy sophisticated systems that enhance the lives of millions of people. It is the simplicity of teaching gratitude, with something as basic as the short prayer they say before every meal (Itadakimasu). It is further supported by a mottainai mentality.

So come to Japan to see in-depth and in-person this amazing culture. Perhaps you too will be walking down the street and have a satori (sudden enlightenment) moment. For me, the epiphany of banishing sloppiness and falling in love with precision began one of the most important journeys of my life. My hope and prayer is that this book might also begin a journey in your life that creates greater fulfillment and respect for the abundance and blessings we have all been given.

The One Thing: Mottainai... what a pity to waste anything


Paul Akers is an entrepreneur, business owner, author, speaker, Lean maniac!

He is the founder and president of FastCap, a product development company with distribution in over 40 countries. FastCap, based in Ferndale, Washington, launches 30+ new innovative products each year and is regarded as a model Lean manufacturer.

Paul is an energetic speaker whose core passion is helping people discover their full potential and showing others how to implement Lean in their business and personal life. Paul’s passion for Lean has taken him around the world to over 70 countries to work and speak. Paul has written 5 books, "2 Second Lean", "Lean Health", "Lean Travel", "Lean Life", and "Banish Sloppiness".

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