The culture of Japan is filled with concepts that are mind-boggling to an outsider as well as very aesthetically pleasing. From their concept of Kintsugi, to their concept of Wabi-Sabi, to their concept of spaces and time, we come to see life with a new and different perspective that will definitely enhance the way we live.
I have often wondered about the empty spaces on a canvas and whether they held any meaning within them. I have watched artists paint their thoughts and ideas on blank canvases and I have pondered whether the empty spaces on the canvas was as important to the artist as the thing they painted. I remember when I first went to an art gallery and I was going from one painting to the next and I was constantly thinking what the artist actually wanted to portray and I, being unaware of this concept of Ma, hadn’t thought about the blank spaces left on the canvas and considered them to be unnecessary and irrelevant. I, myself, am an artist who didn’t like to leave behind empty spaces and often considered them to be a sign of not being good enough to fill them with something meaningful. I guess what I was really missing out on was the idea that perhaps the empty spaces themselves had a meaning and could be considered important.
In Japanese culture, there are four different words for “space” and each of them differ from the other in the aspect that they all look at human relationships in a different perspective.
Relational space (wa) is the awareness of connection between people in a specific space. Wa aims to recognize and differentiate between relationships that are formed between people in different spaces and how they are affected by that very space. The idea is that a space such as a workplace has a different interpersonal connection than a place like a bar or lounge.
Knowledge-mobilizing space (ba) is another term for space in the Japanese culture and it refers to the idea of having a certain arrangement of elements to create connections that will eventually produce new knowledge and experiences. It asks us to be open to distractions and interruptions when our inherent nature is to be closed and focused when doing an important work. The idea behind this is that what a human being knows is only important and valuable as long as it is put against what other people know in order to increase our own knowledge and experience.
“The Japanese build spaces as extensions of culture and values, rather than as places where culture happens.”
Location (tokoro) is the third term to refer to space in Japan. In layman’s term, it means to look at something as not just that specific thing but rather as an important backdrop in the bigger picture. “In Japan, a building can’t be in Tokyo without Tokyo being in the building.” The idea of tokoro is that every place is inevitably connected with all the activities within and around it. The idea of place itself is woven together with the historical, cultural, and social contained within it.
Lastly, Negative space (ma, pronounced “maah”) is understood to be a space where dissimilar things are allowed to co-exist. It is an aesthetic concept of a pure and an essential void between all things. “Ma is an emptiness full of possibilities, like a promise yet to be fulfilled.”
“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.”
Ma is an intentionally left empty space which allows the existence of relations and functions between people and things. It is therefore a grey area where all things, similar or dissimilar, exist without any friction between them.
For the Japanese, Ma doesn’t exist only in art but rather in every aspect of their lives. It can be found in their culture: Japanese people bow and make a deliberate pause at the end of their bow before coming back up is an example of Ma as that pause conveys feelings and shows respect. Ma can be found in their emotions: Japanese people have spaces between their houses and buildings to show respect to the spaces and to their neighbours. For a Japanese neighbour mowing his lawn, it would be a problem without any space between the houses as they are too respectful and might end up mowing their neighbours’ lawn too. Ma can be seen in their architecture and the way of living. Japanese have houses with empty interiors with only walls and very few objects as they feel that that emptiness allows the appreciation of experiences that occur within.
“Rather than viewing space as a functionless area between two borders, we could start to think in terms of Ma, and consider the virtues of empty space and time.”
Yusuf Aziz is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Nuzhat Khan
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.