Ma (negative space)

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Left panel of the Pine Trees screen (Shōrin-zu byōbu (松林図 屏風)) by Hasegawa Tōhaku. The empty space in this piece is considered to be as important as the trees depicted.

Ma () (lit., "gap", "space", "pause") is the term for a specific Japanese concept of negative space.[1][2][3][4] In traditional Japanese arts and culture, ma refers to the artistic interpretation of an empty space, often holding as much importance as the rest of an artwork and focusing the viewer on the intention of negative space in an art piece.

Though commonly used to refer to literal, visible negative space, ma may also refer to the perception of a space, gap or interval, without necessarily requiring a physical compositional element. This results in the concept of ma being less reliant on the existence of a gap, and more closely related to the perception of a gap.[5] The existence of ma in an artwork has been interpreted as "an emptiness full of possibilities, like a promise yet to be fulfilled", and has been described as "the silence between the notes which make the music".[6]

Examples of ma appear in Tao Te Ching:

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.[6][7]


Among English loanwords of Japanese origin, both ma (negative space) and ken (architecture) are written with the character of (ma), derived from the character ("door") and ("sun").

Earlier variants of the word ma were written with the kanji for "moon" (), ostensibly depicting "A door through the crevice of which the moonshine peeps in".[8]

Usage in Japan[edit]

Ma appears in many areas of Japanese arts and culture. For example, the tokonoma alcove in a traditional Japanese room is a space or a stage used to display important objects, such as a painting scroll, an important art object, or a flower arrangement.

In ikebana, the space around the flowers is considered to be equally as important as the flowers and plants themselves, with harmony and balance between the two considered the ideal.[9][10]

In karate, "ma" refers to the distance between two fighters. Knowing the safe distance between oneself and an opponent based on their reach is considered "understanding ma".

Usage in the West[edit]

In his 2001 book, The Art of Looking Sideways, graphic designer Alan Fletcher discussed the importance that perceived negative space could hold in art:

Space is substance. Cézanne painted and modelled space. Giacometti sculpted by "taking the fat off space". Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses... Isaac Stern described music as "that little bit between each note - silences which give the form"... The Japanese have a word (ma) for this interval which gives shape to the whole. In the West we have neither word nor term. A serious omission.[11]

Author Derrick de Kerckhove described ma as “the complex network of relationships between people and objects”.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "An Introduction to Japanese". ThoughtCo.
  2. ^ "FAQ: 'Ma' and 'Mu'". Houzz.
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-05-12. Retrieved 2007-12-27.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ "A Note for MA: Space/Time in the Garden of Ryoan-Ji - Iimura".
  5. ^ "Ma".
  6. ^ a b "When Less is More: Japanese "MA" concept, minimalism & beyond".
  7. ^
  8. ^ Bernhard Karlgren, Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese, Paul Geunthner, 1923, p. 130.
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ The Art of Looking Sideways. by Alan Fletcher. Page 370. Published by Phaidon, 2001. ISBN 0-7148-3449-1.
  12. ^ Genosko, Gary (2 April 2019). Marshall McLuhan: Theoretical elaborations. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780415321716 – via Google Books.

External links[edit]