When we think of boundaries, we think of lines. But what if we thought instead about space?
‘Ma’ is a Japanese boundary, but it isn’t a line. It is a void, an expanse. The literal translation is “space between,” but rather than a static gap, it is the distance that exists between objects as well as between time. It is the silent pause between musical notes, the shadows between the light streaming through blinds, even the interactions between people, whether they are loved or despised.
Ma turns the room where we gather with family into a home, and the gap on the bookcase into a growing library. It is the white between these letters that convey meaning and not just smudges of black ink.
Researching this cultural notion of space, I had a conversation with a Japanese friend, Izumi, and mentioned the practice of Japanese not liking to share walls with their neighbors. Even with land so scarce in Tokyo and the city so dense, the Japanese still typically keep a small space between houses or buildings. She said how surprised she was when visiting the United States to see the lack of fences in suburban housing divisions. The vast expanse of green grass crossing multiple homes and owners was shocking.
Izumi explained that it wasn’t the loss of demarcation of where one property ended and the other began, but that without fences, the Japanese individual would have a very difficult time knowing when they should stop mowing the lawn. The idea that a homeowner could mow up to their property line and leave a border of cut/uncut grass was unnerving. She mentioned that this would be very difficult for her countrymen, because far too many questions would enter the Japanese mind: Where do I stop? Do I keep going and mow my neighbor’s lawn? Is that line of difference as unsightly as an un-mown lawn? The continuous plane of turf physically tied neighbors together. There was no space, no ma, to allow independent thought or activity, including their expression of lawn care.
In Japanese culture, Ma allows a clear delineation of individual units and multiple states to exist in harmony. When edges touch they have to reconcile their common border. With the presence of a void, space is left to mediate between the two, to mitigate.
In nothingness, Ma enables. The empty boundary provides a place for everyone’s version of reality or imagination to exist. The further my text spreads out the more you wander away from my message and in fill with your own thoughts.
As designers, ma encourages us to create boundaries for nothingness, edges of vacancies where ideas can spout and muses grow. It lets our minds fill silences with our own tones or personalizes an image rising out of distant pencil marks. Ma gives space for us to deviate from the intended message before pulling us back to the next demarcated ledge.
Ma reminds us that what isn’t there provides the ability for everyone’s story to co-exist. It is the boundaries of space that allow us, and all our ideas, to exist side by side.