by Jerrold McGrath

“The Japanese build spaces as extensions of culture and values, rather than as places where culture happens.”

When you are the first person to arrive in a meeting room, do you think of it as being empty or full?

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 enters.”

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 filled 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 selflessness. These concepts “entail not engaging in any fixed ideas or actions,” Kodama says. Even the word for person in Japanese, ningen, reflects differences in how interactions and identity are understood. The first 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.

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