One of the conceptual pillars of Japanese aesthetics is the concept of ma, the interval or space that gives shape to the whole. Ma is the concept of absence, and in-between — essentially the opposite of the western way of conceiving reality, which focuses on the tangible. The ancient Chinese thinker Lao Tzu described it this way more than 2,000 years ago, in a book that became the foundation of Chinese philosophy:
Thirty spokes meet in the hub,
but the empty space between them
is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay,
but the empty space between it
is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors form the house,
but the empty space within it
is the essence of the house.
Do you see any value or usefulness in this concept? Does it relate at all to the music you listen to, or your experience of life? What meaning could it hold for your life and your view of the world?
What significance does it hold at this incredible moment in human history when particle and quantum physics are revealing the way matter emerges from emptiness, and why we experience solid reality, such as a boulder, when it is actually mostly empty space?
1) WHAT IS MA? AN INTRODUCTION
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. ‘I collect silences’, said Heinrich Boll […] Isaac Stern described music as ‘that little bit between each note – silences which give the form’. Frank Kafka warned that ‘[…] Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence … someone might possibly have escaped from their singing, but for their silence, certainly never.’ […] 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. 
In the discussion of space, it is easy to neglect the significance of ‘negative space’, as designer Alan Fletcher reminds us in his encyclopaedic The Art Of Seeing. To be sure, that which is present (‘positive’) is surely more substantial to discuss than that which is not (‘negative’). The very term ‘negative’, in its ordinary day-to-day usage, may sometimes have an unpleasant connotation.
Well, you may not know what you are missing.
Ma (間) is a concept of absence and in-between, which is a departure from a way of looking that privileges the tangible. It is a powerful concept with many faces and layers. Apart from space, ma is applied to the discussion of time as well, revealing that in Japan there was ‘not even a distinction between space and timelike in modern Western thought’. The word ‘ma’ essentially refers to ‘an “interval” between two (or more) spatial or temporal things and events. Thus it is not only used in compounds to suggest measurement but carries meanings such as gap, opening, space between, time between, and so forth’.
This spatio-temporal principle of ma underlies all traditional Japanese art forms. However, Like other Japanese aesthetic principles, ma goes beyond just being a ‘way of seeing’, but is a ‘way of life’ as well, for, as Japanese architect Arata Isozaki puts it, it is a ‘fluid term able to encompass many aspects of life in Japan. 
[Ma] describes both time and space through a notion of interval. This usage is the basis for understanding all spheres of the environment, life and art to the extent that architecture, fine art, music, drama and gardens in Japan can be called ‘the art of ma’. This undifferentiated understanding of time and space can be considered an important basis for the emergence of differences expressed in Japanese and Western artistic expressions. 
That said, while now taken to be a ‘quintessentially’ Japanese notion, like many aspects of Japanese culture and life, ma has its origins in the Chinese philosophies of Taosim, Confucianism and Buddhism. In addition, as typical of cultures that view life as cyclical and temporal, ma as a concept appears to be imprecise according to Western paradigms, adhering to the exasperating ‘oriental’ logic of ‘contradiction’. On another note, although initially a concept applied to the thinking of traditional Japanese art forms, like all robust concepts, ma is versatile enough to be extrapolated to the analysis of other arts (as seen in Fletcher’s quotation above) and indeed, life itself.
2) THE ROOTS OF MA
a) HISTORICAL CONTEXT
To be sure, the concept of a pregnant void has existed way before the notion of manothingness (or emptiness, manifested variously in concepts such as mu,wu, shunyata) is a recurrent theme in Eastern philosophies, a problematic term that is at once mystified and romanticised as it is often misunderstood. Rather than being something that is ‘negative’ or undesirable, it is, on the contrary, a coveted state of mind that diligent Hindus, Buddhists and Taoists alike seek to attain, via various rigorous techniques such as meditation. was formulated in Japan. The notion of
The bedrock of the philosophy of Taoism, Tao Te Ching, written around 6 B.C, contains several texts that deal with the notion of nothingness. Lao Tzueloquently articulates the role of nothing:
Thirty spokes / Share one hub / Adapt the nothing [wu] therein to the purpose in hand, / and you will have the use of / the cart. Knead clay in order to make a / vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the / purpose in hand, and you will have the use of / the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order / to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to / the purpose in hand, and you will have the use / of the room. Thus what we gain is / Something [yu], yet it is by virtue of Nothing [wu] that this can be put / to use.
For time immemorial, the Japanese have always proved to be Masters of Mashup, being cunningly skilful in how they sampled / appropriated systems and habits of the world to whip into something that would later be identified as ‘idiosyncratically Japanese’ (take for instance Japanese language and the kimono, which are from the Chinese ; astonishingly, in 1999, two Japanese companies even claim to have ‘invented’ Indian curry, and attempted to claim patent for it!). This was to be the case for the concept of ma as well, as ‘the Tao Te Ching is […] an important place to locate a ma-like element’. Indeed, ma, ‘the Japanese concept of a time-space continuum, complements mu: ma conceives of time and space not as absolute measurable entities’, as the West think of them, but ‘essentially as a void, defined only by the movements and events that take place within it. Space and time are not two distinct entities, but two interrelated dimensions’.
If ma has a contemporary human face (and body), he would manifest in the shape of Isozaki, who was responsible for ‘introducing’ the concept of ma to the western world through his seminal exhibition ‘Ma’: Space-Time in Japan (1978-81) in Paris and New York. This interdisciplinary exhibition ‘presented Japan’s artistic culture through the unifying concept of ‘Ma’ – Space/Time as a basic organisational principle found in Japanese painting, photography, theatre, performance, music, sculpture, architecture and daily life.  Ma-mascot Isozaki speculates that the oldest form of the concept of ma was the notion of utsu(void).
Utsu signifies the void inside a certain substance, a cave in a rocky mountain, the hollow inside an old tree, the ‘dug-out’ of a canoe, or the cavity of a pit dwelling – the sacred spirit was thought to lodge in all of these voids. As the view towards the void became more ritualised, even a solid gem was believed to contain a void a sack of cloth, without holes for hands and feet, was thought to be inhabited by the sacred God. The more severed from exteriority, the more sacred the internal void.
This is consistent with our understanding of Shinto as a pantheistic religion. Isozaki explains how the ancient Japanese attempted to visualise and formalise the movement of the kami (spirits) through time and space. This act of waiting for the appearance of the kami is the underlying principle of the Japanese conception of space and time. In fact, the essential subject of many Japanese artistic pursuits (such as Noh and Kabuki theatre) is precisely the representationmoment of inhabitation of a space by kami.  Isozaki goes on to assert that in this framework, ‘space was recognised only through the mediation of time’.  This is a radical departure from the Western conception of the objective time-space paradigm.
Let us keep this imagery of ma being a space in which the kami appears in mind. We shall come back to it later but for now, let us return to the mortal world attempt to look at more tangible ways to define ma, and see how it permeates in the basic tenets of Japanese life.
b) ETYMOLOGY OF THE WORD
Language is one area in which the Japanese have indeed done a good job in customising it to suit their needs, and any learner of the Japanese language can attest to the difficulty in grasping, much less mastering, the nuances ( – which is slightly embarrassing if one wishes to claim that one’s first language is Chinese). There was much that the teacher at my hothouse Japanese language school in Tokyo could teach (and I could learn) – but there was so much more that is fascinating as it is frustrating in the Japanese language.
Take the beguilingly simple single character of ma, which is the centre of our investigation. The Chinese character ma (間) is made up of two elements: the gate or door (mon, 門) and the inner character meaning sun (hi, 日) or moon (tsuki, 月). The character itself has a repertoire of meanings both tangible and abstract. ‘A room is called ma, for example, as it refers to the space between the walls; a rest in music is also ma as the pause between the notes or sounds’. 
Ma is the natural distance between two or more things existing in a continuity or the space delineated by posts and screens. To sense somethinginvisible is an essence of Japanese art. It also pervades various aspects of life & culture in Japan. In painting, the focus has often been on the marginrather than on shape, in music on silence rather than the notes and in dance on stillness rather than movement. All of these can be expressed by a single term: ma 間.’
One person inspired by the Ma exhibition in New York in 1979 who put his excitement into good use was Richard B. Pilgrim, a scholar on Japanese religion and art. Pilgrim waxes lyrical of this ideogram:
The visual image or character, therefore, suggests a light shining through a gate or door. If we were to take the gate itself as representing the things or phenomena and events of the world, the opening in the gate becomes a ma or interval between the things. Yet ma is not a mere emptiness or opening; through and in it shines a light, and the function of this ma becomes precisely to let that light shine through. 
Ecstatic with this imagery, Pilgrim goes on to elaborate:
A literary example of this image can be found in the twelfth-century novel, The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki: “It was the fifteenth night of the eighth month. The light of an enclouded full-moon shone between the ill-fitting planks of the roof and flooded the room. What a queer place to be lying in!, thought Genji, as he gazed around the garret, so different from any room he had ever known before.” 
While Pilgrim’s lyrical flourish may appear a little excessive, it is fascinating indeed that a single ideogram alone can encapsulate such a striking imagery. It helps us to understand the multifaceted ways in which ma is used in the Japanese language, and in essence, deeply ingrained in Japanese consciousness. Indeed, ‘the concept of ma became customised and widespread in many aspects of Japanese life’. kami making a visitation in ma. Again, let us keep this imagery of light shining through a door in our mind; we shall return to this imagery later, along with that of the kami making a visitation in ma.
The character of ma can be combined with other words to make compound words related to time and space such as:
時間 (ji kan): time
空間 (kuu kan): space (where kuu = ‘empty’; ma is read kan here)
間もなく (ma mo naku): soon
間に合う (ma ni au): on time
この間 (kono aida)：the other day (where ma is read aida here)
Then, ma then can also mean ‘among’ :
仲間(naka ma): companion
人間 (nin gen): human being (ma is read gen here)
Pilgrim takes the compound ningen to refer to ‘persons (nin, hito) stand within, among, or in relationship to others. As such, the word ma clearly begins to take on a relational meaning– a dynamic sense of standing in, with, among, or between’. 
Ma also ‘carries an experiential connotation since to be among persons is to interact in some dynamic way’.  The following phrases illustrate this nuance:
間をとる (ma wo toru): stop, pause
間遠い (ma chigai): mistake
間が悪い (ma ga warui): unlucky, embarrassed
間抜け (ma nuke): stupidity
Since ma signifies the ‘distance between two points’, Isozaki adds that ‘maintaining distance was deemed imperative in human relations as well; those who ignore this were called manuke (missing or lacking distance), meaning “idiot”.  When I learnt this phrase in language school, I thought that this is such an elegant way to call someone an idiot that I would not hesitate to be called one (in the Japanese language). To be sure, there are other less poetic antonyms in the Japanese language, but compared to terms available in the English language, I will take manuke anytime (and anywhere).