MA — The Japanese Concept of Space and Time

Photo by Jordy Meow on Unsplash

The Japanese concept of Ma is something that relates to all aspects of life. It has been described as a pause in time, an interval or emptiness in space. Ma is the fundamental time and space from which life needs to grow. Space for the Japanese psyche directly impacts the individual’s progress. These principles are universal, when applied effectively they enhance the way one thinks and how one engages with one’s surroundings. Japanese can visually identify with the meaning of Ma from its kanji symbol. Ma combines door 門 and sun 日. Together these two characters depict a door through the crevice of which the sunlight peeps in 間.

We see in this symbol not only the outline of a door but a door that is open to light, thus enabling growth, speaking creativity, permitting freedom. This is Ma — a very Confucius concept of the space between the edges, between the beginning and the end, the space and time in which we experience life. Ma is filled with nothing but energy and feeling. It speaks of silence as opposed to sound, of lack as opposed to excess. It is the momentary pause in speech needed to convey meaningful words, the silence between the notes that make the music…

There is a need for Ma in every aspect and every day of every individual’s life.

One of Britain’s most influential post war graphic designers, Alan Fletcher, refers to Ma in his 2001 introspective book The Art of Looking Sideways. “Space is substance, Cezanne painted and modelled space. Giacometti sculpted by “taking the fat off space”. Mallarme conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses…Isaac Stern described music as “that little bit between each note — silences which give the form”…

The Japanese had a word (ma) for this interval which gives shape to the whole. In the West we have neither word or theme. A serious omission”, states Alan Fletcher.

Ma in Japanese Culture

Nowhere is Ma more apparent than in Japan, after all the Japanese saw fit to create a name for the concept. Aesthetic values are deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Decisions are carefully thought out, never rushed. Contemplative time and space is always considered. Intuition and feeling often determine the outcome of actions over pure logic and reasoning. An everyday example of Ma can be seen in the respectful Japanese bow. People make a deliberate pause at the end of a bow before they come back up — the reason being as to ensure there is enough ‘Ma’ to convey feeling and look respectful. Another example would be the silent pause in conversation. The Japanese way of communication is full of emptiness; subjects of sentences are often left unsaid. Clarity in words is not always necessary, reaching an intuitive understanding in a silent pause is considered highly intelligent and sophisticated. This opposes the more direct western standards of communication, especially in the US where nothing should be left for speculation, and conversations avoid the ‘awkwardness’ of silence.

In Japan attentive listening and thoughtful observation are valued far more than pressing one’s opinion or speaking to simply fill an uncomfortable silence. In fact silence is not perceived as uncomfortable at all. Quiet time is needed in order to truly think and feel the quality of an experience. Sincerity of feeling is often conveyed more effectively with a silent expression or gesture. In the realm of Japanese society Ma is a sense of place in relation to the whole, often revealed in expressions or common phrases. For example, Ma-nuke, meaning fool, literally translates to ‘someone missing ma’. The term of human-being combines the kanji characters for ‘person’ and ‘place’ nin-gen (人間). We can see that a person conceived of as part of a greater whole rather than separate. In many cases the western viewpoint differs, tending to envisage the human as a self-contained indivisible whole who should be educated to distinguish oneself from everyone else. These two social ideals are clearly opposed and frequently misunderstood.

An example is given of a traditional Japanese room, which is usually very minimalist with only a table, cushions and maybe a few plants or painting as decoration. The lack of excess allows the person to appreciate the room a little more, imagine the potential of the negative space, and gives a sense of peace of mind.

Ma in Emotions

When one thinks of boundaries, the thought is of lines. But what if the thought is instead of space? Ma is a Japanese boundary, but it isn’t a line. It is a void, an expanse. The literal translation is “space between,” but rather than a static gap, it is the distance that exists between objects as well as between time. It is the silent pause between musical notes, the shadows between the light streaming through blinds, even the interaction between people, whether they are loved or despised.

This cultural notion of space can be seen in the practice of the Japanese not liking to share walls with their neighbours. Even with land so scarce in Tokyo and the city so dense, the Japanese still typically keep a small space between houses or buildings. Japanese are often surprised when they visit the United States to see the lack of fences in suburban housing divisions. The vast expanse of green grass crossing multiple homes and owners is often shocking to them. It isn’t the loss of demarcation of where one property ends and the other begins, but that without fences, the Japanese individual would have a very difficult time knowing when they should stop mowing the lawn. There would be far too many questions for the Japanese mind: Where do I stop? Do I keep going and mow my neighbour’s lawn? Is that line of difference as unsightly as an un-mown lawn? The continuous plane of turf physically tied neighbours together. There is no space, no ma, to allow independent thought or activity, including their expression of lawn care.

In Japanese culture, Ma allows a clear delineation of individual units and multiple states to exist in harmony. When edges touch they have to reconcile their common border. With the presence of a void, space is left to meditate between the two, to mitigate. In nothingness, Ma enables. The empty boundary provides a place for everyone’s vision of reality or imagination to exist. The further one’s text spreads out the more you wander away from the message and fill in with your own thoughts. Ma reminds us that what isn’t there provides the ability for everyone’s story to co-exist. It is the boundaries of space that allow us, and all our ideas, to exist side by side.

“Ma” is an integral part of the Japanese psyche and culture. “Ma” — the space around, the space between. The fullness of silence. The shadows that determine light’s quality and form. Without “Ma” life crushes upon itself, filling us with anxiety and fear.

Ma in Traditional Arts

Noh theatre is considered a supreme artistic expression of Ma, combining all aspects in a single refined performance. Senu tokoro ga omoshiroki is an expression the Japanese use to describe Noh theatre, meaning what the actor does not do is interesting. Noh epitomizes the dynamic balance between object and space, action and inaction, sound and silence, movement and rest. Former director of the Japan Foundation New York, Isao Tsujimoto talks about the concept of Ma as an ‘intrinsic sense’ in Japanese culture, seen in all aspects of life, from the arts to every day conversation.

In the art of Ikebana space is an essential component and often the focal point of an arrangement. It is viewed as ‘invisible energy’ that gives life to the form. Space is carefully shaped by the placement of materials. Arrangements excel in forming a unique interplay between the two. When observing Ikebana, one is encouraged to step back to appreciate the whole form — only then does the individual notice the delicate interaction between all parts. In a time of increasing demands, requiring quick reactions, Ikebana reminds all to slow down, to fill time and space, not with things, but with meaning and purpose.

In Japanese poetry Ma suggests a pause in time — it takes the mind to the moment that inspired the poet, suggesting that one contemplates that moment, experiences it fully. For example, the term ko-no-ma, meaning ‘among trees’ sets a vivid scene, yet at the same time the moment is open for individual interpretation.

In the art of sumi-e brush painting large areas of space are intentionally left unpainted. Proficiency lies not only in mastering the form of the characters, but also in the relationship between form and non-form. The dimension of time is key in the appreciation of sumi-e artwork. Traces of movement and the speed of the brush are valued as the marking of rhythm in time. Vast empty space enhances the energy that rides within every brush stroke.

Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, and celebrates its role in bringing nature, art, and harmony into the home.

Ma in Architecture

In the architectural context Ma refers to the dimension of space between the structural posts of an interior. The layout is intentionally designed to encompass empty space — energy filled with possibilities. The traditional teahouse is a definitive example of Ma in architectural design. There are no decorative fixtures or ornaments. The structural walls alone set the foundation for life to perform. The emptiness of the interior enhances appreciation for the ephemeral experiences that pass through — the momentary gatherings of people and objects. This is a wonderful way to look at a home, free from material attachment, the walls are merely walls — it is about the life that occupies the space.

In London in 2014 The Royal Academy of Arts hosted a series of large-scale interior installations centred around the concept of Ma. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, along with some of the creative architectural minds from around the world, utilized space and light to create sensory areas of space for viewers to experience.

The tearoom is 4–1/2 tatami mats or approx. 9' square. The interior includes a closet kitchen (mizuya) and an alcove for displaying art (tokonoma). The tea house is enclosed by sliding shoji doors and surrounded by a veranda (engawa).

Ma in Religion

Mitsuru Kodama, a professor at Nihon University, argues that the Japanese concept of space derives from two foundational traditions: Shinto (an indigenous spiritual tradition in Japan) and Buddhism (imported from mainland Asia).

From Shinto came the high value placed on harmony in relationships and a focus on the connections — spoken and unspoken — that ties people together. From Buddhism came the ideas of emptiness and selflessness. These concepts “entail not engaging in any fixed ideas or actions,” Kodama says. Even the word for person in Japanese, ningen, reflects differences in how interactions and identity are understood. The first part (nin) represents a human being, and the second (gen) stands for space, or in-between. The understanding of a person isn’t distinct and atomistic, but rather is made up of the connections and relationships that people form as they interact with each other.

Ma in Your Life

As a philosophical concept Ma relates to our intrinsic need as humans to identify with purpose, to aspire and personify our lives. Ma is the space within which we exist, the space we originate and evolve from — it begins as a void of meaning — the meaning is to be created by the individual as well as the group.

The key point to take away from the concept of Ma is to take the time and space to step back, think and see from the whole perspective. Not only does this lead to growth and progress as an individual, it reminds one that actions play a role in shaping a shared world. It is all too easy to become swept up in those small insignificant distractions that sway an individual off course, preventing them from truly thinking for themselves or leading one to only think of themselves. All life begins with the same void of meaning — and everyone has the power to shape their own time and space with lasting purpose. This is ultimately where fulfilment is found.

Thinking about spaces in a more ‘Japanese’ way can open up new ways of organizing life and focusing on the relationships that matter to each one of us. Japanese people have at least four different words for “space,” most of them quite different from their English equivalent. These are: building spaces that deepen relationships (wa), generating new knowledge (ba), connecting to the work around us (tokoro), and all moments of quiet and integration (ma). Understanding each of these individual concepts of space can truly enrich one’s experience of the world and gain a much greater insight into the Japanese mind.

The design of the Zen garden is very deliberate. The garden itself has 15 large stones and it was designed so that only 14 stones will ever be visible at once. The philosophy behind this is that once one reaches enlightenment then the 15th stone will become visible.

Author, Cross-cultural specialist, PR consultant, devoted family man, love great food and travel plus baseball and gardening enthusiast