Defining the Japanese Concept of 'Ma'
December 27, 2007 7:36 AM   Subscribe

What do you know about the Japanese word/concept of 'Ma'? I know it denotes the negative space between objects and it relates closely to the similarly used Japanese word 'Mu'.

Since there is no Wikipedia entry for 'Ma' I have started it myself. Feel free to add to it. I will eventually compile any information I find and add it to the page. I would ideally love to find the Kanji for the word and any references defining it (whether on the internet or in books etc).

posted by 0bvious to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
(IAAL: I am a computational linguist with a Japanese Degree)

I wouldn't jump to conclusions that Mu and Ma are closely related. Ma (間, right?) isn't just about physical 'negative' space (as in 茶の間, 'living room'), it also describes temporal space as well (間も無く, 'in a moment'). It's more about space in general, in time or in physical space and there isn't much negative about it.

Also, there is a wikipedia entry.
posted by Alison at 8:04 AM on December 27, 2007

Sorry, that should be IAACL.

Also, check out the WWWJDIC, it will give you some interesting, detailed information on Kanji uses and compounds.
posted by Alison at 8:05 AM on December 27, 2007

IANACL, but I've studied Japanese and lived there for some time.

I agree with Alison that there's not much negative about ma, either in its spatial or temporal meanings. If by negative you mean ma/aida's usage with respect to 'empty' space, I'd assert that ma is used quite positively in this regard, functionally making the space nameable by virtue of its being between other nameable things.
posted by kickback at 8:28 AM on December 27, 2007

The Creative Industries faculty of QUT is obsessed with Ma. Apparently it's the only thing worth noticing about Asia because every damn lecture on Asian art in the whole faculty centers around Ma. To get any points in your assignments, if you're doing something on Asian arts, go to Japan and write about Ma.


As far as I could understand it, it's the space between two things - usually two notes, or two measures, or something like it. The silence in between. I have a feeling that it's one of those things that the locals understand intuitively but cannot quite explain and that Westerners overthink (like a plate of beans) and place a bit too much significance on it than it really needs.
posted by divabat at 8:49 AM on December 27, 2007

It's a mistake to try to read too much into the Chinese meanings of kanji. Usually kanji are used for their meanings, but quite often they're used phonetically without regard to their Chinese meanings.

My favorite example of that is bakayarou which means "damned fool". (Like any insult it's hard to translate, but that's the gist.) It's spelled 馬鹿野郎
-- horse
鹿 -- deer
-- civilian life
-- son

ma seems to get used rather broadly, for a lot of things that don't obviously relate to "space".

間夫 -- a married woman's paramour
間欠泉 -- a geyser
間延び -- slow and stupid
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:58 AM on December 27, 2007

This concept is also important to tea houses. The house is a bounding agent for the space within, so the focus should not be on the structure itself, but the space it contains. Often there will be one glaring imperfection in the structure (like a rough piece of wood) that serves 2 purposes: 1, it serves as a reminder that perfection is not the realm of man and 2, it serves as something to jolt you, or wake you up from the complacence of the perfect structure. This is analogous to the slap on the back from a zen monk to apprentices meditating to try and "shock" them into enlightenment. All though its not surprising, its very interesting how lots of cultural threads tie together.

So to summarize/distill- (maybe obvious since mefi's are smart), I think this is (IMHO) the key to understanding ma- its about the quality of a bounded space. It is as important in Japanese conceptions of space as the structure that confines it. I always think of it like a jello mold if the jello was invisible and inside the mold itself.
posted by zennoshinjou at 10:03 AM on December 27, 2007

間 ma seems to get used rather broadly, for a lot of things that don't obviously relate to "space".

Maybe so, but your examples are not particularly good.

間夫 -- a married woman's paramour. 夫 is husband. "Mabu" is the 間の夫, the "husband for in between."

間欠泉 -- a geyser. 間欠 means "intermittent". 泉 is "spring". 欠 means missing, so 間欠 does relate to the concept of space or "in between".

But I agree that one shouldn't read too much into Japanese kanji.

This concept is also important to tea houses.

Err, yes, or in fact to any house, as 間 can also simply mean "room" as in 居間, living room. Note the double meaning of the word "room"? This is so deep and philosophical, I wonder whether Asian minds will ever be able to grasp its conceptual beauty... (Perhaps it might even be a good basis for a Ph.D. thesis about Western art at a Japanese university.)
posted by sour cream at 1:20 PM on December 27, 2007

What everyone else said; also, just for the record, while "mu" is technically a Japanese word, it is direct a loan from Chinese, and the association between it and "[mystical] nothngness" (rather than use as a plain ol' affix meaning "-less" or whatever) comes out of Buddhism originally. The English understanding of "mu" comes from the western Zen popularizers of the mid-20th C., I believe. (And I suspect that the understanding of "ma" you are chasing also comes from western writers, groping around for a new gimmick, perhaps assisted by a Japanese artist or two actively loading the term down with meaning in their work...)

I don't think "ma" has any special meaning in Buddhism, and it is a native Japanese word not drawn from Chinese, so proposing a relationship between them is kind of difficult. That's no guarantee that Japanese or foreign art scholars haven't given it a try, of course, but I doubt it's a generally held thing.
posted by No-sword at 2:57 PM on December 27, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the input everyone. Does anyone know of any specific uses in English texts? I need some English references in order to strengthen my case for Wikipedia entry.
posted by 0bvious at 3:37 PM on December 27, 2007

I'm sort in inclined to say that if you can't translate the Japanese wiki entry on 間, you shouldn't write a wiki entry in English about 間.

You can't "understand" a language without actually understanding it. You just can't.

It's unfortunate that the English-speaking culture propagates the idea that you can understand the meaning behind a foreign language without actually speaking it.

It's an effect left over from British Imperialism and it's simply not going to work in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized and there are more and more people who will call your bluff.

Please learn Japanese if you want to have enough knowledge to write about it in English.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 4:50 PM on December 27, 2007

With all due respect, I agree with FOATS: you should not be trying to do a Wikipedia entry on this.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:44 PM on December 27, 2007

Response by poster: I am not inclined to write a Wikipedia entry on the Japanese meaning on the word. I want to outline its usage in English. If the usage is inncorrect in translation, then that is still worth cataloging. Language is a fluctuating, evolving entity. 'Ma' will not be the first word from another language to be appropriated in such a way.
posted by 0bvious at 4:07 AM on December 28, 2007

Response by poster: P.S. I lived in Japan for two years (although admittedly my Japanese is fecking awful)
posted by 0bvious at 11:07 AM on December 28, 2007

fan_of_all_things_small , Steven C. Den Beste -- WTF? That Japanese wiki-entry's solid kanji! How's the beginner supposed to learn?
posted by Rash at 3:43 PM on December 31, 2007

There's no WTF about this, he is describing 間 as meaning "negative space". It doesn't mean negative space and the entry is incorrect.

My point was that you shouldn't write about something which you have to ask other people about on mefi and then summarize their answers for.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 9:06 PM on January 2, 2008

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