What is the difference between the words 間【あいだ】 and 間【ま】 ? Both seem to have the basic meaning space or time interval.

  • 1
    as an "independent word", あいだ.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 23, 2014 at 14:26
  • 1
    @virmaior By "independent word" I meant "not in a compound". (In a compound it is of course pronounced かん or けん.) I have rephrased the question to make it clearer.
    – user763305
    Commented May 23, 2014 at 14:30
  • 2
    No, the rules aren't that clear. 間{かん} is a word, and 間{ま} appears in compounds such as 間近・隙間・間違い・間際・居間・手間・間口・谷間・マヌケ and in the lexicalized adverbs 間もなく and いつの間に.
    – user1478
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 2:08

2 Answers 2


Both readings can mean "between" (see meanings 1, 2, 4, and 5 of aida and first meaning of the noun ma). But aida seems to be more common to express a space between two (or more) things, while ma expresses a space as such, or the type of partition of a space (see the second and third meaning of the noun ma), such as a floor plan.

aida can carry the temporal meaning "during, while" (meaning 3 of aida), and following a nominal marked with -no it can mean "among" (meaning 6 of aida).

ma can also express a period of time, as in the above-mentioned 間もなく 'ma-mo na-ku', or 間に合う 'ma-ni a-u'. It can, more specifically, express the moments during a conversation when nothing is said (meaning 6 of the noun ma).
There are further, specialized meaning of both words, and there are, of course, also some instances of grammaticalized use (the temporal meaning 'during, while' of aida would fall in this class, imo).

To summarize, aida means mostly "between", while ma means "space", its way of partitioning, and "period of time".


As a part of a sino-japanese word you get カン・ケン readings as you suggest.

My sense is that if you just see the character lying about somewhere, the reading is あいだ.

The Japanese wiktionary has some helpful ideas in its list of meanings for the character in Japanese, namely 4, 6, and 7 where they think it only works for ま


when it means a room, it is always ま

  1. めぐりあわせ、運、タイミング。

When it refers to timing it is always ま

As a parenthetical, it can also be pronounced ま in a "compound": [合間]{あいま}. Cf. all of the room words ([居間]{いま}). And even あいだ in [間柄]{あいだがら}

There's also a set list of phrases where ま seems to be used:


But at least I would say the character used for native Japanese words is あいだ unless otherwise known to be ま.

  • 1
    There is also 間に合う (まにあう), to be in time; and 間もなく (まもなく), soon, in a short time.
    – user763305
    Commented May 23, 2014 at 17:41
  • But I agree with your answer; あいだ seems to be the default, while ま is used in certain special cases.
    – user763305
    Commented May 23, 2014 at 17:44
  • 1
    also いつの間にか, which also uses ma
    – ssb
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 23:00

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