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.

門+日=間

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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