A perspective on Distances and the Japanese concept of MA

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Distance can be defined as the space between two points, for instance being parted by space.

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A length defined by two coordinates in relation to each other, is typically what you think of when you hear the word “distance”. The two coordinates can be two individuals, physically distant to each other, or two moments in time, present, past or future. The two points can also be abstract points of reference, just existing to define and bring to life the in-between.

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This year’s theme of YMT magazine is distances. The last few months have been heavily shaped by physical distance and social distancing. A global state of being, created by the Coronavirus. Naturally, the theme relates to the current pandemic situation we exist in, and it explores definitions, views, perspectives, emotions, metaphors and ideas of what distances have been, are, and can be. This text is not trying to find answers to what distances are, but can hopefully encourage new thoughts and discussions.

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In order to perceive and understand distances, you need perspective. If you look at the two-dimensional plane below, you can see two coordinates apart from each other. The length of two points apart is by definition the distance between them. The shortest distance between them is defined by the length a, a certain value. Moreover, there is only one length that defines the shortest distance.

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If you change your perspective to a three-dimensional space, the definition of the length between x1 and x2 will change. Looking at the image below and the two coordinates, x1 (the point of origin) is a certain length apart from x2. x2 is placed exactly in the middle of the circumference. The length of a and b has the exact same value, the distance between them is equal and yet unequal. The value of the length of both are equal but there are two possible paths to reach the other side.

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Through a change of perspective, we are suddenly able to see that the distance between x1 and x2 contains more than one possible path. But which space between them are we talking about when referring to the distance between x1 and x2? How are we able to tell them apart, to define them? We can view a and b as alternative paths, depending on our orientation. 

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Between January and now – two moments in time – life happened. The same amount of time continued passing, nothing changed that, but Corona pushed us into an alternative life path than the path we were used to. We have been going a different route, one that might have felt longer, maybe shorter. Corona imposed a new reality on what life used to be like up until that point. Looking at the image again, starting from x1, both path a and b reach x2. We lived through as many days this year, from January until now, as last year, but one difference was that this path felt different. The length was equal, but the experience of it was a different reality. Corona changed the perspective and made an alternative path visible, much stronger than ever before. By that, it not only changed reality but our perspectives as well. It was as if we were pushed down the other route, not the one we knew or anticipated.

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Both of those paths were topological, a tangible reality to us. What happens if we distance ourselves from that concept of distance and its definition?  How did our perspective change? Maybe reorienting ourselves again reveals a distance that is non-topological? Can the space between two points of reference be an abstract path?

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Deeply rooted in Japanese culture is the concept of MA (間). Its literal translation is “space between”, “the distance that exists between objects as well as between time”, also referred to as negative space (Matsumoto, 2020). Negative space is space that does not have a topological identity. It exists in realms of something different, abstract, non-tangible. It is often translated as a gap, space or pause. Kiyoshi Matsumoto, a Japanese cross-cultural specialist describes it as “a void, an expanse” (Matsumoto, 2020).

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In Japanese culture, negative space is celebrated in art and poetry, from flower arrangements to all aspects of daily life. The concept is defined as a love of emptiness and beauty, and is perceived as the entrance door to that infinite space. MA can also be found “in the purposeful pauses in speech which makes words stand out. It is in the quiet time we all need to make our busy lives meaningful, and in the silence between the notes which make the music.”(KISAKI, 2011). MA is the celebration; not of things, but the space in-between them. It does not occupy something tangible, it is not topographic – it is the in-between.  

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Maybe Corona helped us realize that there are alternative paths in life. Reality can change depending on our orientation. Sometimes, turning around and walking the other way, is pushed upon us, without our consent or choice. Many were experiencing “less” than “more”. Not in the qualitative sense, but in the quantitative. For a lot of people there was much less of what we would usually fill our time with. There was more emptiness, more negative space. Some experienced more silence, more calmness. There was a feeling of emptiness of time, but maybe not a lack of it. Maybe we were much more alone, but not lonely. Maybe through less there was more. There was more space, more in-between, without there being “something”. 

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We lived through something different during the pandemic, and we experienced it along with the rest of the world. We were distant from each other, but we could empathize with fellow human beings thousands of kilometres away. A rare thing. Maybe it was a sense of MA that we glimpsed during that time. An existence that cannot be located, nor can we measure the amount of space it occupied.

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Next time, when we are aware of our moving in time and space, maybe we remember that there is an alternative path. Perhaps we can invite some MA, some non-attached space, into our reality. Maybe those long durations of nothingness, nothing happening, less stimuli had a positive impact. A beautiful space we can retreat to and have in our busy lives. We can pursue new paths, create a new reality and invite some negative space into it.


We just need to change our orientation. 

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References

Matsumoto, K. (2020). MA – The Japanese Concept of Space and Time. Medium [online]Available at: https://medium.com/@kiyoshimatsumoto/ma-the-japanese-concept-of-space-and-time-3330c83ded4c

Beyer, M. (2020). Concept of “Ma” Is at the Heart of Japanese Minimalism. Treehugger [online]Available at: https://www.treehugger.com/cultural-concept-ma-heart-japanese-minimalism-4858440

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