The concept of 'ma'   間という概念

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Learning the tea ceremony at the WAK.

A group of Japanese office workers



A beauty ideal

Harmony, balance, simplicity, zen... Just a few words that can come to mind when we talk about Japanese art. The minimalism can sometimes be surprising. In reality, the negative space that's left is precisely what generates their beauty. This emptiness, which isn't really empty, is the ma.

"Ma", the balance between everything

While the notion of ma is particularly present in Japanese art and aesthetics, it's also essential to understand how it affects human relations and Japanese culture. The ma is the space between two things, not considered an absence that separates, but as a relationship. Let's see a few examples to understand more clearly.

See also : Tea ceremony

In tea ceremonies, the placement of the utensils and containers have precise and complex rules. Space is divided into imaginary lines on which objects are arranged. Placing the most valuable object along the centerline is an important rule, but it must be slightly off-center. This gap, this emptiness created, is the ma. It's not the absence of something, but the heart of things. This notion applies to architecture, calligraphy, and even flower arranging.

Ma is not just a spatial concept, it's also a time interval. In Noh theater, you'll find it in the tension between two aftershocks, in the breaks that separate the actors. Again, it shouldn't be perceived as a lack or an absence. It gives a rhythm.

To read: Noh theater

The space of "Ma", a graceful shift

However, ma is not fixed. In classical Japanese dance, it is appreciated when a dancer doesn't exactly follow the tempo. A true master is able to play with times and setbacks, creating a graceful shift. Ma exists in these subtle variations - sometimes a matter of timing, sometimes a spatial shift, and sometimes even a mixture of both. But then, what place does it have in the attitudes and the human relations of the Japanese?

Each individual is compelled to adopt a social behavior. It's about controlling oneself so as not to cause shame, for example, until the ability to behave appropriately is second nature. In Japan, the logic of groups and social circles predominates. Between uchi and soto, we have the seken, those people who aren't relatives or strangers. To behave with them one can be neither too attached nor too distant, and therefore to pay more attention to the interval, to the ma , between oneself and the others. Thus, this concept is found even at the heart of interpersonal relationships.

Read also : Uchi and soto

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Teshima Art Museum

This takemonois composed of a flower arrangement and calligraphy suggesting spring

This takemonois composed of a flower arrangement and calligraphy suggesting spring

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