Japanese Art

Mokurai Rock Garden


There is a je ne sais quoi in Japanese arts, as French would put it, which evokes an aesthetic experience quite different from Western arts, and even other Asian arts. An astonishing and unsurpassed aesthetic sense is grasped, yet one can be bewildered as to how to make sense of it. This is particularly obvious in traditional music and theater such as Kabuki and Noh. There is a pace and distinctiveness in these arts unlike Western music and theater. This difference is such that by viewing Japanese arts from our typically (and I would even say, to a large extent hegemonic) Western viewpoint, we might miss the point, although we can greatly enjoy them, and acknowledge their unmistakable aesthetic.

In this article, I would like to briefly present three of the main principles of the Japanese aesthetic, principles that also play a role in other aspects of Japanese lives and minds, in the hope to give to travelers and enthusiasts of Japanese culture a way to better enjoy and aesthetically grasp Japanese arts.

These three concepts are the following: naru, which means "becoming", ma, which is translated as "space", but which means much more than a bare physical space, and jo-ha-kyû, an aesthetic concept which structures most forms of art and which is closely related to naru.


Naru means "becoming", but a becoming dependent on time, in which all events of life flow progressively from one to another, or more specifically, in which each event is created from the previous one in an unbroken time span. The notion of becoming in Japanese philosophy is a creative process controlled by a vital energy called musubi (literally meaning the spirit of fecundity), which propels the events of life from one state to another through time. In this line of thought, time is viewed as a natural process through which life evolves. It is not an abstract concept distinct from life as is the case in Western cultures. Time is viewed as fundamentally fluid; it cannot thus be fixed and strictly organized. Time in this particular sense cannot be controlled or manipulated; it can only be grasped through its motions. It is a time impregnated with all that it brings to life. Time is thus perceived as a dynamic and evolutionary flow of life, each event being a creation or an outcome of the previous one. The concept of naru has its origin in traditional Japanese society before its main contacts with China and Chinese influences in the second half of the first millennium, predating the advent of Buddhism.


Ma, for its part, is generally translated as "space," but it can also mean "time." It refers to the space between events, as it is being perceived by someone, as well as being expressed by an artist. It is not an abstractly calculated space, as is conceived by Westerners, but rather a sensory, and I would even suggest, a "sensually" perceived space. For musicians and actors, ma refers to the expressive space between musical events; it becomes in this sense a measure of artistic expression. For art lovers, it is that space between oneself while perceiving, and what is being perceived in the flow of time. This space is sensory because it determines how our senses are solicited and it is, I think, "sensual" because of how our minds will respond to what is aesthetically being perceived or expressed by artists.

An example will better describe this concept. Let's say you are invited to attend a tea ceremony. You enter the tearoom. The room is quiet and almost undecorated. It has a distinct meditative feeling. You notice in one corner of the wall in front of you all the necessary equipment and utensils for the tea ceremony. There might be an empty square covered by sand in the middle, instead of the traditional tatami (straw mat) over which, hanging from the ceiling, could be a metal pot. You turn your head to the left and you notice behind you in the corner of the wall the calligraphy of an old haiku (a 17-syllable traditional poem). Below it stands a flower arrangement. Beside it hangs a beautiful kimono. The haiku might be about a lady quietly walking in a garden, thinking of her lover. The flower arrangement might be a representation of that garden, while the kimono is reminiscent of this lady wearing such a beautiful kimono. She was probably beautiful, you ponder. You now turn your head to the right and you notice sliding doors with beautiful paintings of nature scenes. When you entered the room, you noticed first the tea ceremony equipment because they were the most striking, but upon investigating the room, your eyes gradually noticed these different elements of decoration, some of which even took you by surprise because they were subtly placed out of sight.

The ma refers to that perceptual space between each of the elements that your eyes encountered while gazing through the tearoom, intentionally created in this manner by the designer of the room. Each of these elements purposefully solicited your mind in a timely manner since your senses do not notice all simultaneously, but one after another. By noticing the tea ceremony equipment first, your mind instantly thought of the beautiful and meditative ceremony to come. Since it has not started, a time is given to you to gaze around the room. As you notice the calligraphy, if you are non-Japanese, you might wonder about the poem, about the flower arrangement and the kimono. Are the three linked in some manner? The kimono solicits your mind in another way: the pleasure of walking in a garden wearing such a beautiful garment and smelling the flowers encountered along the way.

The ma is thus the perceptual space as our eyes notice things that entice our minds to wander and wonder upon each of these items. This flow of time is part of the concept of naru, as your discovery of the different elements gradually adds to your experience of the room. Their arrangement within the room, and between each other as you gradually attend to them, is deliberately created with this purpose in mind. In this sense, the ma refers as well to how the artist or designer aesthetically succeeded in creating this sensory and sensual impact through this particular arrangement. In music, ma refers to the silence between musical phrases, as well as how each of the phrases is performed. The same concept applies to an actor, and refers to his or her artistic expression.

What is MA?

"MA" is one of several Japanese pronunciations of the Chinese character:

which means "space" or "interval". It is a combination of two characters, 門 which means gate and may be pronounced "mon" and 日 which basically means "sun" and alone is phonetically pronounced "hi".

Actually, as with many Chinese characters, 間 has been simplified and transformed to suit the perceived needs of modernization.

Previously, the character was a combination of

門 and 月

which means "moon" and thus looked like this:

It was originally meant to signify the beauty of the moonlight shining through an open gate. An open gate implies that there is "space" between two vertical structures which together constitute a gate.

Obviously, without the space, the moonlight could not shine through, and correspondingly, without the moonlight, the space would take on less significance. One cannot "be" without the other.

NOTE: Ma "space" or "travel" The relationship between sound and silence. Ma is linked to both rhythm and to the Zen background of shakuhachi playing. It refers to the overall timing of a piece. Emphasis on silence conforms to Zen ideas concerning the importance of emptiness and space. A good player is aware of the length and quality of the silences before and after his sounds. Players can be referred to as having good ma or bad ma.

Jo-ha-kyû [序・破・急]

The principle of jo-ha-kyû appeared around the 8th century when the Gagaku court music appeared from China. Of Chinese origin, it has been adapted to suit the temporal sense of the Japanese aesthetic. It was first applied to dance, but has permeated all other art forms, especially Noh theater, Kabuki and music. These three words roughly mean introduction, development or exposition, and conclusion or denouement. The principle refers to the division and development of a play, or a musical piece, each segment progressively and dynamically flowing into each other, i.e. "becoming" each other. The length as well as the number of sections for each element may vary. For example, joruri, a type of puppet show accompanied by a singer and a shamisen (a 3-stringed lute), as well as a Noh play, are divided into 5 parts: Part 1: jo, Parts 2-4: ha, and Part 5: kyû. In Noh and Kabuki, an extra part can be introduced between ha and kyû, and in some instances there is no jo.

In music, it can be used to describe the structure of an entire piece, each section, each musical phrase and even each note, somehow in a modular fashion. Within the jo of a musical piece can be arranged its own jo-ha-kyû, within which are arranged musical phrases which are formed according to this principle. In shakuhachi honkyoku music, which is the meditation music of the Zen Buddhist monks, a single phrase can simply be a solitary long and breathy note, to which the principle is applied in playing this note. The note starts slowly to reach a form of climax, to gradually end, though it can end abruptly, this abrupt ending being the kyû. The instrumental pieces of jiuta music (classical chamber music for shakuhachi, shamisen and koto) are generally divided into three parts, the first part accompanying a song, the second part an instrumental development, followed by the third part also accompanying a song.

This principle is also used in most other forms of art in one way or another, such as kemari, a ball game, renga, a form of traditional poetry, ikebana, flower arrangement, kendo, the art of the sword, among others. It is used to regulate the dynamic and aesthetic flow of events in any art form.

In brief, naru refers to the flow of the expression of art by artists and its perception by art lovers, jo-ha-kyû to its structure through time, and ma to its expression and perception per se. My discussions with Japanese musicians and non-musicians suggest to me that "ma" means much more than simply the space and silence between events. I regularly hear such comments as, "this artist has a good ma," referring to the creativity and aesthetic sense of the artist, as it is being perceived by an art lover. My understanding is that for Japanese, a good artist is one who knows how to structure the flow of time, which is expressed through his or her artistic and aesthetic grasp of ma, using jo-ha-kyû. The role of art lovers is to perceive, grasp and make sense of these aesthetic principles embedded in artistic expression.

I was told once by a Japanese that it is the custom not to applaud during traditional concerts and Noh plays. This behavior can also be noticed in some films, though it does not appear to be the case with Kabuki, in which the audience is actively involved. Some fans might know the plot so well that during the performance, Westerners will be surprised to hear people in the audience shouting things. These vocal outbursts are not random, but occur at specific times during the play. I was told that the reason why there is traditionally no applause is to prevent breaking the aesthetic experience one gets from such performances. It is also the custom that one should leave a performance quietly, thus maintaining the experience in one's mind and being for a longer time.

Japanese art, especially theater and music, can be disconcerting when one is unaccustomed to the extremely slow and meditative pace. An understanding of these principles, however slight, might give any travelers a better background to make sense of the Japanese aesthetic. I think, as with any non-Western arts, if one has a fundamental understanding of the aesthetic principles at the basis of Asian art forms, one might be better able to enjoy and appreciate them.


Jo-ha-kyû [intro-development-ending] A phrase describing the principal dynamic phases of a renku sequence. May be considered as larghetto, con brio, diminuendo. It is a combination of terms that describe the succession of times in a brano of Japanese traditional music and that they correspond approximately to introduction ( jo ), development ( have ) and conclusion ( kyû ). In theirs meant it originates them the terms come used in order to above all indicate the three moments of one execution of gagaku and of one rappresentazione of bugaku in this narrow meaning they indicate:

  • jo : instrumental prelude in free rhythm that accompanies the income of the dancers on the theater box;
  • it has : brano on regular rhythm that accompanies the development of the dance;
  • kyû : conclusion from the accelerated rhythm during which the dancers abandon the theater box.

Musical kinds: The gagaku : Classification and brani of the gagaku : The bugaku .

With going of the time but the terms they have acquired meant the much widest one, than it is not only applied to the gagaku and that rhythm difference does not indicate one necessarily but rather one emotional or dramatic progression. In particular the concept of jo - it has - kyû in a generalized manner covers one great importance in the aesthetic conception of Zeami on the theatre nô and the art.

Characteristics of Japanese traditional music: Technical, structural aspects and of language: Shape and structure .


William P. Malm, 1986. Six Hidden Views of Japanese Music. Berkeley: University of California Press.

William P. Malm, (1959) 2000. Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Edwin O, Reischauer, 1970. Histoire du Japon et des Japonais 1. Des origines à 1945. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Akira Tamba, 1988. La théorie et l'esthétique musicale japonaises, du 8e à la fin du 19e siècle. Paris: Publications orientalistes de France.