Pepi in Wonderland: Ma, the Japanese concept of space

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Welcome to another Pepi in Wonderland chapter. I thought that it would be interesting to talk about Ma, the Japanese concept of space. Though appartments and homes can be minuscule in Japan, and sometimes even too crowded with stuff, reality is that Japanese praise the Ma. But before defining what Ma might be, let’s take a look at this room and answer a simple question: is this room full or empty?

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You have probably said that this is an empty room. However, Japanese will probably tell you that this is a room which is full! Full of air, you might think. Ma is to give meaning to objects and shapes that are arranged in a particular fashion. Hence, the Ma is like an interval within the Japanese spatial experience. It also happens with silences and pauses. If you have seen any of Miyazaki Hayao’s films, you realize that there’s always time for a pause, to put our eyes onto what seem like little activities; pauses that explain the characters better. So, the arrangement of objects in a room can be in perfect harmony. Thus, a room can be full, and look pretty empty for Western eyes. And this happens because Japanese use all their senses when perceiving space when we only use one, our eyes. So, rooms are arranged in a way that can be enjoyed from different points of view, from more senses than just our eyes. So, Ma is the Japanese space, including more than one sense.

Ma puts you in a spot where you can discover more things by exploring, or resting, or touching, or smelling. How spaces are arranged is paramount since your experience within space can be very different. It can also be incredibly profound and subjective as well, so a room can make someone feel in a way and an entirely different thing to someone else.

While it’s difficult for Westerners to find this sense of Ma in Japanese rooms, we can experience it when visiting a Japanese garden. Japanese gardens are thought in a way that enchant the visitor in several different layers. Not only plants are arranged for visual pleasure, but they’re also arranged through seasons for your noses to smell. You can start walking in a way or another, and you’ll discover an entirely different garden.

Ma ‘s hard to define, as well as difficult to explain that the room shown on this post is full and not empty. The Japanese heart is what Hayao Miyazaki has told us through his characters. The use of space he’s used in his films when presenting his characters, how they pause, and the silences are just but examples of the Japanese heart and culture. And that’s maybe why we’re so marveled by it.

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So, while in the West when we talk about space we’re talking about the distance between objects; in Japan space is much more than just a distance since it has to mean. Not only distance but shapes and the arrangement of objects in space is what forms the Ma. And it’s all this what gives to the Japanese a different spatial experience. Perceptions are participatory since more than just one sense it’s used.

Hence, there is no surprise to discover that a room might be in harmony or in chaos according to its arrangement and the feelings that it can provoke in us. So, while the room might seem perfect to Western eyes, the same room can be chaotic under Japanese eyes. So, next time you tidy your room tries to think how full or empty it might be. Then, feel it and stop staring at the things inside. Even if you tidy it up, will it achieve harmony? Will you find Ma in it?

About pepi

A Geek Girl interested in Geek Anthropology, comic books, books, Superheroes and discovering all about pop culture.

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  • Danielle Knapp

    I love the idea of using all senses to “fill” a space so to speak 🙂

  • Kay

    Great post! I know very little about Eastern culture, so this was fascinating! I love the idea of having the space (even what we perceive as ’empty’) mean something. And using your senses to enjoy all aspects of the space. Very intriguing!

    • Japanese have a very interesting culture. Details is where you find their spirit, really. Space x feeling is something that I would have never considered had I not lived in Japan. But now, I do tend to “feel the room” and sometimes it’s creepy xDDDDD [Some rooms might have ghosts LOL specially in the UK LOL ]

  • I love how the Japanese can even make the void meaningful ^^ As far as their gardens go, I totally understand what you wrote about; there’s a traditional Japanese garden back in my hometown in Poland and it’s one of my favorite places. (Speaking of which, you may find some photos of it at my blog: )

    • Japanese gardens are amazing <3 I love them!

  • That’s so interesting. I’ve never heard of this concept before but I like it. Seems like you could experience “space” in a completely different way if you practiced it.

    • It’s hard to change conceptions of space, but it’s a good exercise. Japanese culture is amazing. What I like the most is the small details 😉 At the end, they’re big!

  • Shelby Y

    Reminds me of my time in Japan! I stayed in a room very much like the one in the first picture while I was there, slept on a traditional futon as well! I remember the gardens in the castle we visited were some of my favorite parts. Japan is a beautiful and often mysterious place to Americans but I think we can learn so much from them. Also Miyazaki is my favorite. Spirited Away is my top overall rated animated film!

    • Awwww I had a tatami room during two years and I loved it! And yes: I slept on a futon. It was nice. I miss it a lot! I think we can all learn from each other. Cultural exchanges are always good for everyone 😀 Miyazaki is one of my top favorite Japanese authors. My favorite film is Totoro. It’s super sweet <3

  • Great post Pepi and explaining it all! I love the Japanese idea of everything is meaningful in some way right down to space.

    • Thank you! <3 I might choose time next time 😉 But that one is going to be harder… 😮