Japanese boundaries: A different way of perceiving space

Article written by Lizzy

In Japan symbolism, signs, movement, subtle indications or even education can be found as a boundary for space. This may elude the visiting westerner as he is used to the physical barriers which forcefully indicate his course. It does not necessarily mean that the only barriers we westerners recognise are physical, but the sensitivity towards none physical borders is of a different nature compared with the Japanese.

An example of none physical boundaries easily understandable for westerners can be seen around a campfire.
A campfire lit at night surrounded with logs to sit on, embodies so many none physical borders that it’s hard to find another which wouldn’t fall under any of its categories. Although one is seldom aware of borders or boundaries when sitting at a campfire, it is surprising how many aspects are involved in order to create these unconscious borders which make people feel cosy and safe. With a campfire it is easy to determine two none physical boundaries, both circular, around the fire. When a person would be sitting on the logs, one boundary would lie in front of the person, in between him and the fire, and the other border would start fairly close behind the person. I clearly said ‘start’ meaning that the second border has a certain width to it and creates a space by itself. This space could be called ‘grey-space’ and it is especially in this space that we are interested, as I will explain later.

3D campfire copyrighted to Lizzy Design

The first border just around the fire is easy to determine. It is mainly created by the heat. When one gets too close to the fire the temperature becomes unbearable, creating a heat barrier that very few people desire to penetrate. Between this border and the second one around the logs is a space which could be called the ‘inside space’, and this is probably the most desirable space when sitting at a campfire. When we now analyse the action of standing up, turning around, and walking away from the fire, we can see how many senses are involved by determining the second border. The single action of standing up announces the beginning of this border. The action is not only a physical action which changes the visual perspective as one now looks down on the fire, it is also a mental action, as standing up most often marks the beginning of another action, in this case walking away from the fire. As one turns around and starts walking away all the bodily senses register a change. The eyes notice a diminishing of light, the playful flames are gone out of sight and the darkness of the night is approaching. The crackling noise of the wood becomes fainter until the sound of the rustling leaves take over. The chilly breeze slowly pushes away the comfortable glow which kept one warm, and the burning smell gives way to the moist air. Even taste, although not much will change as the fur on the lips and tongue left from the heated air, will taste differently than the one left from the air further away from the fire. At a certain moment one is far enough away that the signals from the fire are too faint to still be enjoyed and one becomes fully aware of another surrounding. This could be marked as the end of the ‘grey-zone’.

This ‘grey-zone’ is a space which is neither inside nor outside, it is a buffer-zone which eases the abrupt border between those two spaces. Although this space is void, in Japan it will not be regarded as empty. ‘Void’ has the potential for an endless amount of possibilities and can be used in many different ways. In this case the grey-zone is sensed as comforting. On one hand it gives a feeling of protection and calmness, but on the other it does not embody the characteristic of guarding and enclosure. It is the active management and creation of such spaces, as well as the understanding, recognition and sensitivity towards such spaces that can be felt in the traditional and artistic Japanese world.

Masatomi Yamaguchi of GK design, a leading Japanese design company says that one of the first and greatest characteristics one would notice concerning space in comparison with the west is the openness of Japanese traditional houses. “In western houses the walls were put in first, every space was strongly defined and windows would appear as holes in the walls. In Japan the traditional house was made out of a series of thin pillars. Later the ‘fusuma’ (sliding doors), the ‘shoji’ (sliding screens with translucent paper), ‘noren’ (curtains), etc…. were used to partition the rooms. All these partitions where movable and made it possible to redefine the room in an instant. A window was referred to as ‘mado’. “Now”, he says “the word ‘mado’ is represented by one single character; in the old spelling however it was made up out of two characters: ‘ma’ being the ‘ma’ described below and ‘do’ meaning ‘place’, thus referring to the place of ‘ma'”.
When an object is placed in a room Japanese people are not so concerned about the object itself but rather about the space around it. Every object projects its own space, like the campfire. Architect, product designer Masayuki Kurokawa described it in the following way to me, “the space is first and then the object, without space there is no object. An object can give a different meaning to every space particle around it, so placing an object happens in function of the meaning you want these space particles to have”.

Laotse has an interesting remark about this:

He claimed that only in vacuum lay the truly essential. The reality of a room, for instance, was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and walls, not in the roof and the walls themselves. The usefulness of the water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made. Vacuum is all potent because it is all containing. In vacuum alone motion becomes possible.

The character ‘ma’ is explained in the dictionary as ‘room’, ‘space’, ‘time’ or ‘interval’ and can be found back in the words human being, hour, time and people. The character ‘ma’ (Character MA) is built up out of two other characters, one representing a gate (Charactor for GATE) and, in between the gate, the character of the sun (Character for SUN) indicating a gap or a space. Is it a coincidence that a character portraying a space between two gateposts, which is neither inside nor outside, is used to represent the concept of ‘ma’? ‘Ma’ can also be further explained as an artistically placed interval in time or space, that by its very absence of sound or colour helps accentuate the overall rhythm or design. In Noh drama, especially, to possess the knowledge how and when to perform this absence, in which the music and the actor come to a full stop, is highly respected. This pause is not seen as an in between moment but rather as a silent fullness. It is a sort of untouched moment or space which can be completed by every individual observer differently, a moment or space in which one’s fantasy can move freely. In this way the artist gets the observers actively involved in his work. Therefore the concept of ‘ma’ carries great value and can not be regarded as ‘nothing’ or ’empty’, but rather as an enormous potential. In the case of our campfire, ‘ma’ is represented by the grey-zone. Here, as well, the space is not empty; it is filled with the outside and the inside. But because it is neither one nor the other it seems as a space by itself. It is a space for the mind to play with and make of it what one desires at the moment.

A beautiful example of such a space in traditional Japanese architecture is the ‘engawa’ which is the space underneath the extension of the eaves in traditional Japanese houses.
The ‘engawa’ was used for many purposes. As it runs all the way around the house it was used as a corridor between the other rooms of the house, as a welcoming place for guests -in ordinary houses it was not allowed to have a special entrance or ‘genkan’, this was only for nobles or ‘samurai’-, a preparation area for an ikebana flower arrangement or for many other things, and in this way it differs strongly from the western porch or veranda. Here again we have a space which is multi-purpose and belongs neither inside nor outside. These grey-spaces are often used in Japanese architecture not only around the house but also inside the house. Most of the time these grey-spaces create a feeling of calmness and rest as can be seen in the example of the campfire. The capability of creating such spaces is almost regarded as an art form in itself.

We can see throughout the history of Japan that the approach towards space has always been of a sensitive nature. This approach, however, did not always result from a pure analytical and conceptual design point of view. The rigid ruling of Japanese society is in direct relationship with the perception of space. As I mentioned before, boundaries can be purely mental. The same space can be perceived differently according to one’s position in society, according to the relationship between the person and the room itself, according to one’s previous life experiences, or much more. A classroom will feel different when entering as a student or entering as the tutor; a living-room will feel different when it is one’s own or when one is a guest; a space can recall past memories and may appear to one person as frightening and to the other as comforting. These phenomena exist in the west as well of course, but the intensity will differ according to the inter-social relationships which are largely influenced by social manipulators like religion, philosophy and ruling forces. In Japan these inter-social relationships are very intense and make people very sensitive towards these mental boundaries. As mental, physical and none physical borders are all very closely intertwined, it is obvious that Japanese people have a strong sense towards subtle variation concerning space. It is clear that space is society dependent and that the way Japanese perceive their spaces is not the same as westerners would perceive them and vice versa. Shigeru Uchida explained to me that the way Japanese people perceive things is on the basis of their feelings and not so much by the physical objects or circumstances. “It is what we feel inside our mind and associate this with what we have in our surrounding, it is detached from the definite and physical way”.

Everyone who has been to Japan has felt the importance of space. The action of taking off one’s shoes before entering a house is an acknowledgement of these differences. Western designers can learn a lot by investigating the Japanese way of approaching space. It disrupts their scholastic way of thinking and broadens the vision towards a richer way of designing. Great masters like Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh or Mies van der Rohe knew it all to well.

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