The Japanese concept of Ma or the sound of silence

Katrina Goldsaito, The Sound of Silence. Illustrated by Julia Kuo

Published 2016 by Little, Brown and Company, 40p

The Japanese have a beautiful concept of silence – Ma. It defines the pause between sounds, the moments of quietness in music, conversation and storytelling. The Japanese embraced the concept even in their lifestyle, valuing minimalism and meaning. In a world of agitation and chaos, Ma brings serenity and substance.

Katrina Goldsaito and Julia Kuo explained the concept of Ma in an enchanting picture book that tells the story of Yoshio, a little boy living in Tokyo. One rainy morning, on his way to school, Yoshio becomes aware of the symphony of his city, a cascade of distinctive noises. Fascinated by the sounds of his boots squishing through the puddles and the raindrops pattering on his umbrella, the boy continues his way to school when he is absorbed by the vibrating notes of a koto.

koto

The notes were twangy and twinkling; they tickled Yoshio’s ears! When the song finished, Yoshio said, “Sensei, I love sounds, but I’ve never heard a sound like that!”

The koto player laughed, and it sounded like the metal bell that swayed in the wind in Mama’s garden.

“Sensei,” Yoshio said, “do you have a favorite sound?”

“The most beautiful sound,” the koto player said, “is the sound of ma, of silence.”

“Silence?” Yoshio asked. But the koto player just smiled a mysterious smile and went back to playing.

Puzzled, Yoshio wonders where he can find silence. He looks for it in the bamboo grove, in the station on his way home back from school and in his house but he can’t seem to hear it.

looking-for-silence

The next day, in his classroom, with no one in it, Yoshio begins to read.

reading

He loved this story, and as he read, he forgot where he was. Suddenly, in the middle of a page, he heard it.

No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned.

In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath. Everything felt still inside him. Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed. Like feather-stuffed futons drying in the sun.

Silence had been there all along.

In a meditative state, Yoshio realizes that silence is not the absence of sound but the knowledge to experience inner peacefulness and to enjoy meaningful moments.

ma

Katrina Goldsaito’s text is elegant, poetic and creates a harmonious connection between the visual and auditory development of the story. And the illustrations are magic;  Julia Kuo simply revives the essence of Japan.

Illustrations copyright by Julia Kuo
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