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The Importance of Spatial Design in Japanese Gardens | 5 garden design elements

Artistically what we might call negative space is an often overlooked defining characteristic of the Japanese garden. First, I’ll go over the importance of understanding the concept of Ma and then I’ll get into 5 specific spatial design principles used in Japanese gardens.

Space is just as important as the trees, the rocks, or water when it comes to Japanese aesthetics and how it affects Japanese gardens.

In Japanese they call it “Ma”, and it’s the gap between something, or the pause when talking about music, and in art it refers to the negative space.

I learned long ago in Sumi-e black ink painting classes that I was taking at the Kansai Foreign Language University in Osaka that the areas that you don’t paint are just as important, if not more important, than what you do actually paint. In shakuhachi bamboo flute music you learn the importance of Ma, or the pauses between the notes, and begin to understand that this is an important way to both express your yourself and create a mood. It’s "the silence between the notes which make the music."

My wife Satomi does Ikebana flower arranging and in Ikebana they say that the space around the flowers and branches is considered to be equally as important as the flowers and plants themselves, and ideally there is a harmony and balance between the two. The same can be said for the pruning of Japanese maples or pines in the Japanese garden, as well as how they intertwine with the whole garden scene.

“To understand the manner in which space is utilized in the garden, it is important to appreciate that the garden is composed of a series of overlapping or interlocking views...”
-Robert Ketchell

Ma is essentially a concept of emptiness, a key concept in Buddhist thought. This emptiness is not a lack of something, but should be thought of as a connecting spot. In a Japanese garden this is the place where the lines between human creativity and nature get blurred. Space is a place of interconnectivity, coexistance, and changes and movement occur.

What I mean by this is that this negative space is where the garden designer, nature, and the viewer can all comingle. The designer provides a space for the viewer to pause and participate in the garden experience. As the garden designer, it’s your job to create these suggestions and places where the viewer can use their imagination, and ultimately have a more deeper, personal relationship with the garden.

Great Japanese gardens avoid the cliches and focus on creating a relationship between the designer, the viewer, and nature. Nature and your setting also comes into play and therefore sometimes you see very minimalistic gardens where the negative space is really highlighted.

Here are a few design techniques that you’ll often see in Japanese gardens and that you should also take into consideration if you’re planning your garden.

Defining the Space and Enclosing it

It is often very clear when you are in the garden by the use of walls, fences, thick hedges etc. Shakkei, or borrowed scenery may be used sometimes as a nice backdrop of a mountain or a temple in the distance, and this adds to the garden viewing, but there isn’t really any confusion as to where the garden area begins and ends.

The enclosure creates a frame for the garden, a way of displaying your work of art. Sometimes it’s out of practicality when the garden is in a city setting, but even when it’s not it’s a good way to control the viewer’s focus. If you have a forest behind it, without defining the area it will get lost in the abyss of the wild nature backdrop. This is especially true if you are going for a Karesansui dry rock garden or trying to create a miniaturized scene.

Gates and Paths

Along with defining the garden space comes a gateway into the garden and pathways that direct the viewing experience. Actual gates may be used but something like a pergola or other defined entryway works great for symbolizing you are now entering a different space. Tea gardens in particular often have a few layers of depth to their gardens where you may enter a few gates along winding pathways. The garden paths allow the viewer to participate in the garden experience, but the designer is ushering you along in a very prescribed manner. With each turn or entry way a new garden scene has been planned.

Ma as a Pause in Time

Take the time to stop and observe that space between solid objects. Pay attention to how much space is given between 2 rocks or a sculpted pine and a tamamono dome shaped azalea. You’ll notice that each object is given enough breathing room to connect with the other objects in the scene or often stand alone.

As you are observing the emptiness between objects in the garden scene you may also be provided a garden bench or specific viewing are to stop and really reflect on it. This creates a space for the viewer to literally have a pause in time and reflect on their connection with the garden and how the different items connect with each other.

Suggestion and Imagination

A good use of Ma should spark curiosity and leave the door open for individual interpretation. You can literally think of the door as being the frame, or the Ma, and the emptiness within it as representing possibility and light on the other side. Garden items like boulders, trees, lanterns, winding pathways etc. should all be designed in a way that subtly suggests things to the viewer allowing them to complete the idea in their own way.

Gardens sometimes lean toward more natural or more bold, but you need to find your own Shizen or Natural balance and style. Don’t forget the human creativity part of the design and your arrangements should stimulate the viewer’s imagination. Dynamic rock groupings or using a seemingly unrelated item in the garden may be a unique way to to spark imagination. And if you find that something is too distracting remember that a garden is a living work of art that can always be changed.

Asymmetrical Balance

A very important idea for Japanese composition, whether it be in Japanese garden design or photography, is asymmetrical balance. It is probably the most differentiating design technique between the East and West. You only have to compare a picture of a Japanese garden to that of the gardens at Versaille to realize how different of an approach they are taking and the spatial concepts that inform them.

When you see grouping of odd numbers like 3, 6, and 9 the scene is more dynamic and natural. Try to avoid a symmetrical balance where 2 objects are just parallel to each other, this often rarely happens in nature and therefore creates a somewhat awkward or contrived space. This also creates an off-centeredness that is prevalent in Japanese gardens. Rarely is there one dominant focal point standing proudly alone, but there is Ma between different areas to allow the viewer to take in different moments of time.

Sorry if I was a little too philosophical today but Ma in general is both aesthetic and philosophical. It’s hard to describe the emptiness or a void, but if you just start paying attention to the emptiness in a garden scene you’ll start to realize how the design has focused your attention on certain items. Don’t overlook that important breathing room in a garden design.

If you liked this video be sure to check some of my other video in my Japanese garden playlist.

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