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4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz


The Japanese words for “space”

could change your view of the
Jerrold McGrath January 18, 2018

 Is this room half empty, or half full? (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

When you are the rst person to arrive in a meeting room, do you think of it as
being empty or full? 1/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

If you were raised in the West, a meeting room is made for people to meet.
Therefore, if there are no people in that room, then of course it must be empty. As
philosopher Henk Oosterling remarks, in the West, “a room is empty until someone

However, in the East, space is understood a bit differently. In Japan, spaces have
meanings prior to any activity that happens within them. For example, as a space
in Japanese culture is understood by how it shapes relationships, the same meeting
room in Tokyo would appear full of symbols and instructions about how
interactions can and should occur. In this way, a room is always lled with invisible
structures, regardless of its occupants.

Instead of framing space as a relationship between objects and walls, the Japanese
concept of space is about the relationships among people. By shifting this view, we
can discover an interesting way of thinking about the spaces we make and use in
everyday life—and the relationships that they create.

Japanese ideas of space

Western designers and architects have long found the Japanese concept of space
fascinating, but there’s also a lot the rest of us can learn about different cultures
and how they approach space as both a concept and a practice. Mitsuru Kodama, a
professor at Nihon University, argues that Japanese concepts of space derive from
two foundational traditions: Shinto (an indigenous spiritual tradition in Japan) and
Buddhism (imported from mainland Asia).

From Shinto came the high value placed on harmony in relationships and a focus
on the connections—spoken and unspoken—that tie people together. From
Buddhism came the ideas of emptiness and sel essness. These concepts “entail not
engaging in any xed ideas or actions,” Kodama says. Even the word for person in
Japanese, ningen, re ects differences in how interactions and identity are 2/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

understood. The rst part (nin) represents a human being, and the second (gen)
stands for space, or in-between. The understanding of a person isn’t distinct and
atomistic, but rather is made up of the connections and relationships that people
form as they interact with each other.

Similarly, Japanese spaces tend to focus on structuring interactions, contingency,

and connections to other people and to society. For example, traditional tea houses
have doors that are narrow and low. This forces guests to lower their head and,
historically, for samurai to leave their swords outside by the door. The doors serve
to remind entrants of their relationship to the host (their lowered head) and to the
broader culture (where weapons are not appropriate). In this way, they build spaces
as extensions of culture and values, rather than as places where culture happens.

The four kinds of Japanese space

Japanese people have at least four different words for “space,” most of them quite
different than their English equivalent.

Instead of being about the built environment, the Japanese words for space center
on the interactions and relationships among people. Of the four terms that re ect
an aspect of space, each looks at human relationships from a different perspective,
and each is potentially useful in considering the spaces we all make and use.

Relational space (wa)

“We sat across from each other in the small room, which made the wa very
tense and confrontational.”

Wa is often translated as harmony, but that isn’t 100% accurate. Wa is an

awareness of interpersonal connection and is often described in terms of moving
air. Every space has a certain quality that in uences the types of relationships that 3/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

form there, and wa recognizes the way that relationships are affected by the space
they’re in.

For example, visitors to Japan who are aware of the country’s strict and respectful
professional nature are often amazed at how lively and active the night life can be.
Long days at the of ce are often followed by a long night of revelry, drinking, and
conversation. One reason that colleagues go out together is to maintain wa and
reinforce their relationships.

Workplaces are designed for a particular set of interpersonal connections, and

working together can create stresses and frictions that need to be addressed. In
most societies, the of ce is understood as an unsuitable environment to do this.
Instead, an izakaya, a kind of Japanese bar, allows for different relationships to
come forward. Alcohol, private and semi-private rooms, and intimate table set-ups
allow for opinions to be expressed that would be unthinkable in the of ce
environment. Employees can tell off their bosses and unsuitable behavior can be
surfaced and addressed.

We call all be more conscious about the spaces in which we choose to perform
different tasks or have different conversations. These locations have an effect on
the kinds of relationships we form. If we want someone to share how they are
feeling, what spaces are more likely to support this? Is a noisy coffee shop the right
place to broach a sensitive subject? What about a candlelit dinner at a romantic

Knowledge-mobilizing space (ba)

“Having all the different departments work on the project together meant
things went slow, but the ba was great, and the breakthrough wouldn’t have
been possible otherwise.” 4/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

Ba is about the arrangement of elements to create connections that are more likely
to produce new knowledge or experiences. While wa focuses on relationships, ba is
concerned with how knowledge is formed and shared. If wa is about social and
interpersonal harmony, ba is about ensuring that people’s knowledge and
experience can be put to good use.

The open-of ce concept is a re ection of ba as a design principal. Japanese of ces

are often very open with many workers sharing a large table and workspace. This
arrangement allows for the rapid sharing of information, sometimes by accident.
The Japanese also prioritize interdisciplinary teams because they believe that the
concentration of different ways of seeing the world will lead to breakthroughs.
There is often a lack of ef ciency when bringing together different specializations,
but ba requires shared space for different relationships and experiences to be
brought forward.

To endow our lives with ba, we might follow social media accounts that are outside
of our experience or tastes, attend events or conferences outside of our
specialization, and meet and interact with people we might not normally meet. Ba
asks us to be open to interruptions and distractions when our temptation is to be
closed and focused. The assumption is that what we know is only valuable if it rubs
up against what other people know.

Location (tokoro)

“Although they both loved camping, taking three ights to get there seemed
like the wrong tokoro for a honeymoon”

Tokoro is used to describe the location or site of something, but it is also used to
describe a state of being. In Japan, the idea of place is indistinguishable from the
historical, cultural, social, and other connections contained within it. The idea of 5/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

tokoro therefore implies the idea of context, as the place is inevitably connected
with all the activities around it.

If wa con gures your relationships in space, tokoro situates that activity within a
bigger story. It’s a little bit different to the Western concept of location, however.
Western concepts of space have an inside and outside and a boundary between the
two. This makes it easier to think about things as being contained within larger
things and containing smaller things: An of ce is in New York City, which is in the
United States. The sales team is inside the of ce, and Jules is a member of the sales

Japanese concepts of space are ambivalent about boundaries, so being a part of a

place means being in dynamic relationship with it. In Japan, a building can’t be in
Tokyo without Tokyo being in the building.

Negative space (ma)

“The ma at this event is awful! There’s no time to think or breathe in

between the presentations, networking, and meals.”

Ma is often translated as negative space. However, ma is better understood as a free

zone that allows for dissimilar things to co-exist. When we communicate
something, we like to assume that the person will receive our message and
understand it in the way that we intended. This is often not the case. If I tell you “I
am hungry,” you might interpret this as information, as a command to feed me, as
an indictment of your talents as a host, or something else entirely.

The Japanese idea of ma is that we need to create interruptions or absences that

allow for difference to be reconciled. Designing for ma is about creating moments
of awareness and quiet. 6/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

For example, in Japan, shrines are often built at the end of long uphill hikes; the
long and tiring walk prepares the mind to enter the shrine and leave behind other
distractions and worries. Cities are scattered with small parks that appear suddenly
and offer winding trails for quiet re ection. Even conversations in Japanese are
marked by long pauses that would be unsettling for Western ears.

Being intentional about creating spaces that allow for re ection and integration
might allow us to better address some of the contradictions and tensions of
modern life. Difference of opinion rarely seems to coexist peaceably, and
transitions from home to work to home again are often marked by crowds and
stress. There are therefore many ways we can make room for more ma in our lives.
Meditation is a wonderful way of collecting oneself during a busy day. Visits to the
library can prove a worthwhile respite from an increasingly commercial world. In
our homes, we can restrict technology from certain areas. Where is the empty space
in our day?


Thinking about spaces in a more ‘Japanese’ way can open up new ways of
organizing our lives and focusing on the relationships that matter to us. Building
spaces that deepen relationships (wa), generate new knowledge (ba), connect to the
world around us (tokoro), and allow moments of quiet and integration (ma) can
enrich our experience of the world and that of those around us.

Follow Jerrold on Twitter. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your
comments at


How I learned to live with a name

that’s a constant source of 7/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

Natalie Lung April 12, 2018

 The badge that made conference-goers go "Seriously?" (Courtesy Natalie Lung)

A month into my rst semester as an exchange student in the United States, I was
at an inter-city bus stop waiting to get to St. Louis. I only mentioned my surname—
Lung, pronounced “loong”—when I checked in with the receptionist. It was a quiet
Wednesday noon and I was the only customer there.

Shortly after settling down in the waiting room next door, I heard faint chatter
from the of ce. “She probably knows it’s embarrassing,” the receptionist told a
white-bearded guy standing next to him. He burst out in laughter.

“That’s a she? I can’t un-see that!” the bearded man bawled, his voice echoing
against the bare walls, including the glass panel that stood between their of ce and
where I sat. 8/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

I froze. Did they just… Were they laughing at me?

I stared at the bearded guy through the glass. His face dropped, and he slowly
backed away to the other end of the room and disappeared. The of ce was dead

I was morti ed. For the rst time in my life, I was made fun of outside the comfort
of my own culture. By strangers who were at least twice my age, and before my very
eyes and ears.

This wasn’t something I had learnt to have patience or forgiveness for. The
humiliation overwhelmed any ounce of self-deprecating humor I had.

I remained silent in my seat, like the fourth grader I was when my classmate told
me my name sounded like a swear word.

My name—my given name—is Fuk-yu (馥瑜).

Call me Natalie

I was born and raised in Hong Kong, where both Cantonese and English are of cial
languages, thanks to its colonial past. Most of cial documents and signs are
bilingual, including our names on our identi cation documents.

For many Hong Kong people, their English name may be the Romanization of their
Chinese name, such as the billionaire Li Ka-shing. Many others choose to adopt a
conventional English name like Paul or Mary or, in a famous case, Jackie Chan.
Ultimately, it is their choice, or their parents’, to include either or both of those
English names on their ID. 9/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

My parents decided to only include the Romanization of my name, Lung Fuk-yu, on

my birth certi cate. They wanted to leave the choice to me when I could make
changes to my ID at the age of 18. When my mother discovered that I liked dancing
to any music that came on TV at an early age, she chose the English name
“Natalie,” after the American actress Natalie Wood who starred in the hit musical
West Side Story. It was one of many Hollywood movies whose sweethearts and
heartthrobs my mother swooned over as a teenager.

But Natalie was a lifestyle choice, not a legal name. It doesn’t appear on my ID or
other of cial documents. So my Romanized Chinese name is my legal name, and
that has been a source of awkwardness for myself, and others, nearly all my life.

Before college, I went to an English-language school and always dreaded the rst
week of class when our teachers would call out our names, as shown on ID, in
alphabetical order to take attendance. I always knew when I was about to be called
because the teacher’s head would tilt sideways with a slight frown.

“Um… Fff.. Fuke?”

Before they could nish, I waved my hand frantically. “I’m here!”

“Fook yu? Did I pronounce your name correctly?”

“Just call me Natalie,” I replied as I felt my face turn red. I wanted to apologize to
the teacher. This became my coping mechanism.

My name is actually pronounced “Fook-yu” in Cantonese, and “Fu-yu” in

Mandarin, but most Cantonese speakers, even bilingual ones, wouldn’t
immediately register it as a curse word because of the slight tonal difference
compared with the English pronunciation. 10/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

It wasn’t until the equivalent of fourth grade that I learned about my name’s
English connotations for the rst time. A girl in my class told me that my name
sounded like a swear word. I was nine years old and had no clue what it meant. All I
knew was that it was bleeped out in movies, so it must be bad.

When that dawned on me, it felt like Adam and Eve feeling ashamed of their nudity
after biting into the forbidden fruit. I had taken a bite out of the fruit of knowledge
of good and evil and there was no turning back. Ever since then, I became acutely
aware of the pronunciation of my name.

Lasting legacy

Every smirk or reference to my name as foul language is like a stab at my parents,

when in fact they had given me a beautiful name. “Fuk yu” literally translates to
“fragrant jade,” a gem that radiates light and symbolizing a lasting legacy.

Even so, I decided not to of cially add “Natalie” when I turned 18. It was college
application season, and any additional paperwork was discouraging enough for me
to let go of the idea of modifying my ID.

Besides, by that time, I had learnt to take things lightly and even beat others to the
joke. Or so I thought. As I grew older and learnt more about internet trends, many
of which originate from the United States, I educated myself about what appeals to
a diverse audience, what was considered comedy, and what was offensive.

After the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport in 2013, I
came across Sum Ting Wong and Ho Lee Fuk—phony names that a TV anchor
unknowingly announced as members of the ight crew. It was the work of an intern
at the National Transportation Safety Board. My mind spiraled into the worst-case
scenario, “Holy—what if the intern found out about my name?” In December 2016,
a few weeks before I was set to arrive at a Midwestern college town in the U.S. as an 11/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

exchange student, I told my friends how I genuinely feared that I was going to
become a laughing stock. “Just repeat your name back to them. That’ll do it,” a
friend advised with a grin.

Then there was the encounter at the bus station, which kept replaying in my head
in the week that followed. Was I just being over-sensitive, or were my feelings

I decided to email the bus company detailing my experience and the meaning of
my Chinese name, hoping I would get closure, if you will. Two hours later, the
owner replied with an apology. He had reviewed the security footage, which
resulted in the staff members involved losing two days’ pay and taking a sensitivity

In the weeks that followed, I received individual email apologies from the staff
members, including one seeking forgiveness for being an “ignorant redneck.”
Another said he was a newly hired Christian who was trying to be “one of the boys.”
That was his “sad excuse,” he wrote. He was resorting to negative stereotypes of
Americans to get me to accept and empathize with his behavior, which does
nothing to guarantee that he wouldn’t behave the same way when a “different-
sounding”Chinese name shows up on his passenger list in the future.

Was I happy about the outcome? I wasn’t sure. The owner was sincere, but what if
the employees’ families depended on that money? I also began to realize I
shouldn’t have expected strangers to understand my complex identity. Why should
I expect others to have contextual knowledge about my culture, and my name?

The next time you hear me explaining my Chinese name, that’s me trying to let the
world know that my name is more than an unfortunate transliteration. If I don’t
take the opportunity to draw interest to the meaning behind it, what the world
would take away from an exchange with me might be only what sounds to them
like a rather hilarious name. That’s not what I want my legacy to be. 12/13
4/13/2018 The Japanese words for "space" could change your view of the world — Quartz

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Chinese name

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