The Japanese concept of ma

Pine Trees
Hasegawa Tohaku Pine Trees

What is the Japanese concept of Ma? Put simply it is the concept of space or negative space. In Japanese culture and art, it’s the artist’s interpretation of this space that is important, often holding as much importance as the rest of the artwork and encouraging the viewer to recognise this space as part of the artwork. Ma though can be found in most aspects of Japanese culture not just in fine art and architecture. It can be found in poetry, music, speech and many other traditional aspects of life.

Ma might not necessarily refer to a physical negative space but may refer to emptiness or perception of a gap.
Ma in artform can be described as “an emptiness full of possibilities, like a promise yet to be fulfilled”, alternatively “the silence between the notes which make the music”

The character for “ma” (間) combines the characters for “gate” above with “sun” below. In a literal sense, the door provides the space as the sun shines through the empty doorway.

Ma is important to many aspects of culture in Japan, not just physical art and design but also speech and mannerisms, it’s the space that allows other things to develop or to be.

What’s so interesting about Ma is that it at a time when most of us are buying more things, filling our spaces with more items, putting a value on being busy all the times, Ma takes us away from this, it gives us the room, it gives us time to think, it frames an object and guides the eye. It puts some order in chaos and harmony to space and time.

Ma enables minimalism, Ma is the quietness that makes actions purposeful, its a pause in a sentence to emphasise a point and the silences places in music. All of it giving meaning and nuance to its space.

Crucially our perspective changes with the concept of Ma. We may think we have too many things, too many things within a space, it feels cluttered, disordered, however rather than. having too much clutter, we can see it as not having enough Ma or negative space to frame things.

Ma in Japanese art and design.

Tadao Ando

Ma can be seen in the works of many artists, designers and photographers from Japan. From the black and white photography of Hiroshi Sugimoto to the sublime architecture of Tadao Ando.
Ma creates balance and space to design and art.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

A Poem

Thirty spokes meet in the hub,
though the space between them is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay,
though the space inside them is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors form the house,
though the space within them is the essence of the house.

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