I really need help grasping the concept of 'ma' (間).

I know that this is essentially negative space, or the interval in between, the pause, etc. I can see how this might be seen in art, i.e. Miyazaki's films, but was wondering if anyone else can give me a few concrete examples? I need to explain it to a large group of English speakers, and I know they might not grasp it easily. I want to flesh out my understanding of the concept in order to do so.

Thanks for the help!


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    間 in Japanese is a fairly mundane word meaning "space", "interval", "pause", "timing", etc., but I doubt any of these concepts are unique to the Japanese language. In what context do you have to explain this word? Why do you think 間 is such a mysterious word?
    – naruto
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 17:47
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    To me, 間(ま) as I think it is being (or failing to be) conceived of by OP is one of those slippery and possibly very Japanese notions I'd be hard-put to explain in any adequate manner. (All I can bring myself to say is that 間(ま) in this sense is a kind of device that can be used to or for some effect.) People use the term in commentaries on a variety of things, from oration, music, sports, martial arts, performance and visual arts to literature and manga and anime, probably with slightly different shades of meaning in different contexts.
    – goldbrick
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 21:44
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    Here are a brief account, blog post and study on it (all in Japanese though).
    – goldbrick
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 21:45
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    This question is interesting but not really about language. As Naruto says, the word itself just means "space" or "gap." The rest is cultural overloading.
    – Matt
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 15:33

1 Answer 1


間 is a word which a native Japanese speaker uses or hears almost every day. Usually it just means "time", "interval", "space", "room", etc. For example:

  • 締め切りまでがある。 There is some more time left till the deadline.
  • もなく東京です。 Arriving at Tokyo Station soon (lit. "in no time")
  • 行と行のをあける to leave spaces between lines, to double-space

Unsurprisingly, such a basic word has dozens of idiomatic expressions which might make little sense if you translated it too literally:

  • 間が悪い (lit. "time is bad") to be done at the wrong time
  • 間に合う (lit. "match the time") to make something on time
  • 間男 (lit. "in-between man") paramour, secret (male) lover

But these may not be of particular interest to native English speakers who don't want to learn Japanese.

So 間 is not really a cool or special word to native Japanese speakers. I'm sometimes surprised to see mundane Japanese words are introduced to foreign countries as something mysterious and cool. For example, see: What is the exact meaning of "kaizen"?

That said, I am vaguely aware that some people have found the concept of 間 as unique to Japan. I found this long article in English: MA: Place, Space, Void. The article also explains how 間 is important in certain fields of Japanese art. Honestly speaking, I'm not totally convinced that 間 is such a difficult word, but I think the linked article covers almost everything that you might need.

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