Ma – thinking about the space between


Ma is one of four Japanese terms for space, space being a concept that, it feels, is given much more focus in Japanese culture than in the West.

Today is Friday, January 4th and it feels to me to be a “space between”, where people have turned their minds back towards work after the holiday season, yet at the same time it still can feel like a “space between”.

Today some musing on space and then a learning from a client just before I wrote this, on what this can be used for to benefit you and your business.

Today my thoughts are in threes once again.

  1. First some thoughts from my friend and collaborator Alan Moore on “Ma.
  2. Next, an article om the four different ways the Japanese look at space
  3. Last, my own thoughts on “space between” from an earlier article of my own

Finally, after those thoughts, what I learned from a conversation with a client this week as an example of the value of being aware of and utilising the space between.


(reposted from an article by Alan Moore)

I have recently been reading Alex Kerr’s intriguing book, Lost Japan. It was a serendipitous moment picking it up in the local bookshop. What a book about such an amazing life journey. It is the concept of Mathat captures my curiosity. Kerr explains, “‘Ma’ — the special appeal of Japanese music lies almost completely in its rhythms, which involve delicate variations and delays between notes, known as ma (spaces)”, he writes, “Ma are everything”.

Ma (pronounced “maah”) — is the pure, and indeed, essential void between all things. It is the essence of Japanese aesthetic, the DNA of its design principles. Ma is all about space that holds potential. In Kabuki, traditional theatre, it is intuitive as practice. Ma is in the purposeful pauses in speech which make words stand out. It is in the quiet time we all need to make our busy lives meaningful, and in the silence between the notes which make the music. Ma takes its inspiration from nature. A Kabuki actor, talking to Kerr says, “Have you ever been in the mountains and listened to the Cuckoo? Its says cuckoo, cuckoo, with the slightest pause between syllables. It doesn’t say kuku kuku like a metronome.”

Ma seems to me a beautiful organising idea. Poetics applied to living, creating, making, any ‘ing we might conceive of. Designing with Ma, we always start with nothing, then we decide to fill it with something. With how much stuff do we fill the void? Its the space that shapes the experience whether it be material, physical, sensual, or spiritual.

I used that idea when I designed books and I certainly use Ma when designing, a product or service even. Perhaps, were we to employ the concepts of Ma in what we wish to bring into this world. We might make more beautiful enduring, valuable things.

Here is a poem about Ma

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.

The Japanese words for “space” could change your view of the world

(full article from Quartz here, extracts below, with a focus again on “Ma”)

Japanese people have at least four different words for “space,” most of them quite different than their English equivalent.

Instead of being about the built environment, the Japanese words for space center on the interactions and relationships among people. Of the four terms that reflect an aspect of space, each looks at human relationships from a different perspective, and each is potentially useful in considering the spaces we all make and use.

Relational space (wa)

Wa is often translated as harmony, but that isn’t 100% accurate. Wa is an awareness of interpersonal connection and is often described in terms of moving air. Every space has a certain quality that influences the types of relationships that form there, and wa recognizes the way that relationships are affected by the space they’re in.

Knowledge-mobilizing space (ba)

Ba is about the arrangement of elements to create connections that are more likely to produce new knowledge or experiences. While wa focuses on relationships, ba is concerned with how knowledge is formed and shared. If wa is about social and interpersonal harmony, ba is about ensuring that people’s knowledge and experience can be put to good use.

Location (tokoro)

Tokoro is used to describe the location or site of something, but it is also used to describe a state of being. In Japan, the idea of place is indistinguishable from the historical, cultural, social, and other connections contained within it. The idea of tokoro therefore implies the idea of context, as the place is inevitably connected with all the activities around it.

Negative space (ma)

Ma is often translated as negative space. However, ma is better understood as a free zone that allows for dissimilar things to co-exist. When we communicate something, we like to assume that the person will receive our message and understand it in the way that we intended. This is often not the case. If I tell you “I am hungry,” you might interpret this as information, as a command to feed me, as an indictment of your talents as a host, or something else entirely.

The Japanese idea of ma is that we need to create interruptions or absences that allow for difference to be reconciled. Designing for ma is about creating moments of awareness and quiet.

I love the ideas in the article, and around Ma in particular, around creating moments of awareness and quiet, and in the thoughts from the article of Ma being to allow dissimilar things to co-exist, to me this speaks to the ideas of empathy and understanding, hence building depth in relationship and so allowing opportunities to emerge.

Less is More

(Excerpted from a personal favourite article of mine originally posted here.)

In being with another person, speak less, listen more. In playing music, the virtuoso plays less, expresses more.

As we practice listening, we can go deeper and deeper in listening and learn more, be of service more. The french composer Debussy said : “La musique, c’est ce qu’il y a entre les notes”. The poetically translated English version is “Music is the space between the notes”. The French more literally translates to “Music, it is what is between the notes“

Oh, and that particular article goes on to discuss the story behind one of the greatest and sparest guitar solos of all time, of Stevie Ray Vaughn paring back his virtuosity on the David Bowie track “Let’s Dance”. By allowing space he saw the opportunity to create something truly special rather than filling space with notes.

Now, in closing.

Brave Opportunities

As I write this in the “space between” the return to work at the start of January and things really getting going in earnest on Monday 7th January, earlier today I had a call with a long-standing client.

We used the time in this space between to review what they called a “Brave Opportunity”, one that falls under their “one-word theme” for their business (see post on this from a few days ago here) of “strategic growth” (ok, two words, but close enough!).

For this client leading his business, they have their business in a position where everything needed to be done to wrap up the past year has been done, so they can take time to pause in these first days back to work and look at where they may look to take the business. It is early days yet, but it feels to me, as their long-time sounding board and coach, that this idea for a “brave opportunity” may add more value in the long term to their business than any single decision they have made in many, many years.

My belief is that this can only have happened because of all the work they have done in and for the business over the last several years, work that now means they actually have created their own “Ma” at this time, the space between, the space for awareness and quiet from which brave opportunities may emerge and indeed just have.

Also published on Medium.

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