Before you read this, please make sure these Japanese letters 文字化け appear. If they don’t, then let me know because in that case this story will just be gibberish.

On a sunny day in Tokyo, whatever the season, a strange phenomenon can regularly be observed: for a moment a streak of light will pierce into a street which has been shrouded all day in the shadows of densely-packed buildings. Once a day, just for an instant, this darkness will be interrupted by a bright stripe of light. The intensity of light then fades rapidly away, leaving the street once more in shadow.

Space is maintained between Tokyo's buildings, whether small or big (click to enlarge).

Space 間

The Japanese letter (or kanji) for space is ma 間 which combines gate mon 門 and sun hi 日. The literal translation of ma is “interval” or “space in between” – the light that shines through an open gate. Ever so slowly, amidst the clutter emerges an immutable harmony that, like almost everything about Tokyo, spurns words for the silences in between.

Tokyo buildings compete for space.

The concept of space in Japanese culture is even more ambiguous than that of smallness – not because it is “ill-defined” but because space is without substance, fluid and malleable. Unlike the Western understanding of space as an empty container that is filled with objects and people, Japanese space flows through the gaps and openings between things.

The New Nelson Dictionary defines the character for space 間 as such:

KAN interval; space; between; among; discord; favorable opportunity. KEN six feet. ai interval; between, medium; crossbred. aida, awai space, interval, gap; between, among; midway; on the way; distance; time, period; relationship. ma space, room; interval; pause; rest (in music); time; while; leisure; luck; timing, harmony. ma(monaku) soon.


Ma is more adequately translated as “interval” or “space in between.” In fact the kanji 間 is composed of “gate” 門 and “sun” 日 – space is the light that shines through an open gate.

The Space in Between

As the above definition shows, the character ma 間 indicates both spatial and temporal concepts – both fluid and not subject to division and segmentation in Japanese culture. It seems that in discussing smallness and space, we have a paradox on our hands. On one hand, space seems like something numerically measurable

(areas and volumes) and visually quantifiable (“this space seems small” or “this city is packed”), but on the other hand it is like trying to count the uncountable. After all, something as fluid as water or air cannot be subjected to quantifiers like “big” or “small.” This is precisely one of the paradoxes this thesis will attempt to explore.

This uniquely Japanese concept derives from a Zen understanding of space as what is formed “in between” objects. Volatile and liquid, space only reveals itself as what is “left” after mass is erected. Ma fills the crevices, the leftover nooks and crannies of objects and does not exist “in and of itself.” I will study this aspect of small space in more detail in the following sections, but for now I quote architect Azby Brown, who, writes that all architecture is created by “extracting” space from a larger landscape. The extracted space is nurtured while the remaining part of the landscape is abandoned.

One cannot envision architecturally nurtured space without acknowledging that it has been somehow extracted from a zone left abandoned. This is not to say that the traditional bifurcation of space into ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ continues to hold real meaning. Rather, it remains a question of degree: the degree to which a place has been nurtured as opposed to its degree of abandonment, both aspects dynamically active over time.

In Tokyo, one is always looking through gaps.

In this sense, no space could be considered small because it is always a part extracted from a larger landscape that continues beyond the physical limits of objects. As Donald Richie, outspoken authority on all things Japanese, writes in his wonderful little book Tokyo: A View of the City,

Even space itself is mutable. It is not to be defined as something contained within walls. It is fluid and in constant transformation. Space is not consequently, empty.

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu explained this nothingness with the example of a vase. Though it was made of clay, the essence was in the emptiness within. Thus the enclosed, the defined, was ‘full’ of essence. He said nothing of the emptiness outside, however. It is only the controlled, used, appreciated, enclosed space that is not empty. It becomes something that is to be separated from the emptiness outside. There is a difference between these two kinds of space.

The Japanese do not need to fill a container (a vase, a picture, a room, a narrative, a floral arrangement, a tea ceremony) – it may be left as it is (what we call empty) because it is enclosed (by its structure, its architecture, its perimeter, its purpose) and is hence already full.

Or in one word, it is emtiful.

This story is from Meedo’s upcoming book Small Space in Tokyo and its Architecture. Please feel free to contact us for more details and read related stories here.

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