At the heart of Japanese aesthetic is a concept called ma (間), or the space between all things. Broadly defined as emptiness, omission, or a pause in time, ma encapsulates the concept of “less is more”. Both a spatial and temporal phenomenon, ma refers to any practice where absence is intentional, allowing one to further appreciate what is present. Within Japanese culture, it can be found in several disciplines including architecture, gardening, music, poetry, shodo (calligraphy), and ikebana (flower arrangement).
Ma and Food
In the arena of food, ma has similarities to the “slow food movement”, which runs counter to fast food culture and emphasizes the importance of cooking with whole, locally-sourced ingredients and building a positive relationship with food and its makers. Rather than eating hurriedly or thoughtlessly, ma asks us to contemplate our experience of food from the standpoints of holistic health, interaction, and pleasure. Consumption becomes a way to nourish our body, discover and deepen relationships with people and the land, and enjoy moments of leisure. In Japanese cuisine, ma is exemplified by the use of seasonal and local ingredients, as well as the preservation of regional culinary traditions.
Ma and Tea
The art of sado (Japanese tea ceremony) is one example of ma in Japanese food culture. Before the ceremony even begins, ma can be observed upon stepping into a traditional teahouse. Lacking extraneous furniture and ornamental fixtures, teahouses utilize minimal decoration and natural color palettes to create a feeling of heightened focus. When surrounded by a sparse interior, the precise placement of objects is highlighted. Highly choreographed and deliberate, sado invites participants to leave behind the chaos of daily life and fully immerse in the visuals and rhythm of serving and tasting tea. With complex, timed movements, sado is an art form that understands the value of making space and taking pause.
How To Use Ma In Your Daily Meals
One way to introduce ma into daily life is to consider it at meal time. Whether researching where one’s food comes from, opting to purchase from small farms and local producers, or simply eating mindfully, ma imbues life with purposeful action and, perhaps more importantly, purposeful inaction.
About the author:
Britney Budiman (@booritney) is a writer, minimalist, aspiring effective altruist, and runner-in-progress with a penchant for saying “yes.” Previously, she has worked in Cambodia at a traditional arts NGO, in Brazil as a social sciences researcher, and in San Francisco at a housing start-up. She currently lives in the countryside of Kagoshima, Japan, where she teaches English. Her favorite thing in the world is good conversation.