Aesthetics Exploration – Ma(間)

Ma is a Japanese word that means a space or an interval in time[1]. It’s a common word used in everyday speech, but when talking about aesthetics, it has been used to describe “the partiality in Japanese design for empty spaces, vagueness, abstraction, asymmetrical balance, and irregularity.” [2] It can also be used as an umbrella term for different aspects of post-WWII Japanese aesthetic. Isozaki Arara, a Japanese architect, is credited with popularizing the use of ma as an aesthetic trope, which began in the late 1970s following a major exhibition on modern Japanese design that he organized, titled Ma: Space-Time in Japan[2] In this blog post, I would like to focus on the more rustic and subtle elegance and beauty described by shibui(渋い), wabi-sabi(侘び寂び), and iki(粋). Shibui means “tasteful (in a quiet way)”[3], but by the 17th century, it had begun to be used to describe something beautiful but not flashy; exquisite but subtle. The term carries a sense of refinement and sophistication that is present in a lot of Japanese designs. Wabi means “taste for the simple and quiet”[4], while “sabi” means “loneliness, mellow”[5]. Wabi-sabi is used nowadays to describe anything that seems rustic and/or is made from old, natural materials. Finally, iki means “chic and stylish”[6]. It was used in the 1750s and onward to describe the sophisticated tastes of high-class men and women in entertainment centers mainly situated in Edo (now Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto. These tenets of Japanese aesthetic is visible in many traditional Japanese art and crafts, such as the <em>ukiyo-e</em> prints and the <em>katagami</em> stencils that helped to produce some famous <em>ukiyo-e</em> prints. These stencils were also used to create the intricate designs on <em>kimono</em> and other traditional Japanese clothing. These words are not only used to describe the outward appearance of something, but to describe its nature as well; Japanese art and crafts are known to be very intricate, and the artists and craftspeople that put in the hours of work to create such beauty are very meticulous and careful, which enables them to create such refined products. This sophistication in both the product and the handiwork translated to today’s notion that Japanese products are very high quality in build and use. The beauty of this aesthetic has transcended generations and is reused in different mediums nowadays, from prints on shirts to collecting and displaying the <em>katagami</em> stencils themselves.

[1] Ahlström, Kim, et al. “間.” Japanese Dictionary,間-1.
[2] Graham, Patricia. Japanese Design : Art, Aesthetics & Culture, Tuttle Publishing, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central,
Created from ucb on 2023-02-02 04:44:20.
[3] Ahlström, Kim, et al. “渋い.” Japanese Dictionary,渋い.
[4] Ahlström, Kim, et al. “侘び.” Japanese Dictionary,侘び.
[5] Ahlström, Kim, et al. “寂.” Japanese Dictionary,寂%20%23kanji.
[6] Ahlström, Kim, et al. “粋.” Japanese Dictionary,粋%20%23kanji.

Image Credits, from left to right
[1] “The Okura Tokyo.” The Okura Tokyo Wins Condé Nast Traveler 2022 Awards, Voted Top Spa of Japan at the Crystal Awards 2022, October 11, 2022 12:11 AM EDT,, February 1, 2023 10:53 PM MST
[2] Tōshūsai, Sharaku. “恋女房染分手綱” File:Toshusai Sharaku- Otani Oniji, 1794.jpg, November 25, 2022 6:25 AM,,_1794.jpg, February 1, 2023 10:57 PM MST
[3] Suzuka City. “Peacock feathers, Ise katagami” Peacock feathers, Ise katagami,, February 1, 2023 11:01 PM MST
[4] Katsushika, Hokusai. “神奈川沖浪裏” File:Great Wave off Kanagawa2.jpg, April 29, 2017 12:48 PM,, February 1, 2023 11:05 PM MST
[5] Ukiyo-e UT (Short-Sleeve Graphic T-Shirt),, February 1, 2023 11:07 PM MST

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9 Comments. Leave new

  • […] to be. I’ve been talking about Japanese aesthetic throughout this class, specifically the Ma asethetic as described here. I like the idea of incorporating vagueness, abstraction, and irregularity to my work, but I just […]

  • […] environment. All of the terrain and objects will be made of Legos; their simplicity accentuates the aesthetic I’m going for, in which I focus more on the Shibui aspect of it, which means beautiful but […]

  • […] objects in the art piece. 3. It should properly convey my aesthetic. There are many ways to achieve this aesthetic, but I also don’t want to just display things are Japanese; the use of Japanese motifs is […]

  • […] wanted to employ a Japanese aesthetic (I talk more about it here). The aesthetic I wanted to achieve is Ma, which is a Japanese term used to describe “the […]

  • […] culture and art, so I’m going to base my aesthetic for this project on the Ma aesthetic (see this post). I think I really want to make a collage of some sort that features different handmadekatagami […]

  • Josh, Ma aesthetics is one of the most intriguing and beautiful aesthetics out of all of these blog posts. The history and origin of the aesthetic is also what makes it so fascinating. In many ways, old aesthetics are still present, just in different ways then they originated. Do you think Ma aesthetic is still present today? If so, in what ways?

    • It’s definitely still present today; outright in visual presentation, many designers will reuse or modify existing patterns and motifs and use them to create their own designs. Uniqlo, for example, makes prints of many ukiyo-e paintings from classical Japan, an example being the Great Wave of Kanagawa (google it and you’ll instantly recognize it).

  • Anil Antony Karathra
    February 5, 2023 8:03 pm

    This is an aesthetic that I wasn’t familiar with until now, and one that I find incredibly interesting. From the description of the three subcategories you have mentioned, I felt that ancient Japanese architecture has had a significant influence on this aesthetic. Do you feel the same way?

    • In fact, ancient Japanese culture did influence this aesthetic; the Katsura Imperial Villa is a great example of the beginnings of this aesthetic. Originally, this villa was built to accommodate the Japanese monarchy, and in the 1930s, Japanese and foreign architects began to draw from this villa (and others similar to it) as inspiration for their modern designs.


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