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Business Insight

Businesses Built on 'Mottainai'

Sakura Koyama

Every day, tons of food is thrown away in Japan. Some businesses think that's a shame. They're taking the concept of "mottainai," meaning "too precious to waste," and turning it into cash.

Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest in the world, handles about 1,700 tons of seafood a day. But wholesalers struggle to sell some products.

"If the customer next to you at a restaurant is eating this rockfish, wouldn't you think that yours is kind of small?" says one wholesaler. "So the small one is a tough sell."

Masahiro Uchiyama is turning that problem into a business opportunity. He buys the leftover seafood and serves it at discount prices.

Uchiyama's restaurant, Mottainai Project Uoharu, makes his waste-not, want-not philosophy into a selling point.

But deciding the menu can be tricky: nobody knows what the raw ingredients are until the day starts.

"I take a look at the ingredients, and then I decide the best way to cook them, such as by boiling or stir-frying," says Yoshiaki Ootahara, a chef at the restaurant.

The ingredients include crab with broken legs. Normally, it would be an expensive treat served at high-end restaurants. The broken legs make them look a bit less appealing, but there is no difference in quality.

Small rockfish are perfect for customers who prefer modest portions, while Tuna tails are used in a stew.

Food prices at the restaurant are up to 30 percent cheaper than average. And Uchiyama is confident that his concept can be expanded.

"Since I opened the restaurant, I learned that there are more mottainai products," he says. "I want to look for rice and vegetables, too."

And mottainai isn't just catching on in the food industry. One company called Mizuiro makes children's clay, colored by the peel of a Japanese citrus fruit called a mikan.

The peels are normally tossed away. But they can be mixed with clay to provide the color. Coffee grinds, and the outer leaves of cabbages are used to make two other colors.

The children's clay was displayed at an event in Tokyo this month. The products have another unique feature -- their odor.

"It smells like cabbage," says one patron at the event.

The company's president, Naoko Kimura, says she wanted to "produce clay that people can play with while nurturing the idea that we shouldn't waste vegetables."

The philosophy of mottainai is one that Japanese people have long taken to heart. Now a new generation of businesspeople is trying to give it a modern spin.

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