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The
“ma”
Game
DianneHofnerSaphiere,NipporicaAssociates
Leawood,Kansas,USA
Purposeandlearningobjectives
To teach the importance of “ma” (pause) in conversation
To make westerners comfortable in their use of “ma” and help them communicate more
easily and accurately with Japanese colleagues
To teach the playful concepts of “batsu,” “pege,” and “kawaisoo
Targetaudience
Business people and their families who interact with Japanese nationals and who would
benefit from improved communication skills; 3 to 18 participants is ideal.
Time
6 minutes for the game and 10 to 20 for debriefing
Materials
Flipcharts with game instructions
“Batsu” and “pege” stickers to indicate an “error” (bug or monster stickers, perhaps)
A bell or other sound device to signal participants to change roles
Procedure
1. Introduce the concept of ma in a short presentation. Ma is a well-known Japanese mindset
or communication style, about which a fair amount has been written (see Further
Resources). Basically, ma means “pause,” “blank space,” “silence,” or “digestion time.”
Ma could be the empty space in a Japanese rock garden, or the white space in a sumie ink
painting. Business people will notice that when a negotiation comes to a standstill, Japa-
nese colleagues frequently want to take a break from the proceedings, rather than continue
the discussion. A ma is just such a break. Even at times when nothing is consciously done
during the ma, negotiators will return to the table and the talks will proceed smoothly.
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2. Likewise, ma is frequently used in conversation. Ma might be the pause between a ques-
tion and an answer (often as long as 3 to 30 seconds, and maybe much longer). A col-
league might use ma to think questions over, like “Whose approval would we need? How
would we go about this? Whose position in the company might this compromise? Will
this be more effort than it’s worth?” etc. Many Japanese people will use ma to indicate
disapproval or difficulty, though many Japanese also respect a pause before an affirmative
answer, as it indicates a thoughtful and non-rash response.
3. Show a video clip or two of Japanese people in conversation so that participants can
observe ma. Popular films or TV shows work well for this: Tampopo, Shall We Dance, a
special you rent from a local Japanese grocery store or bookstore, etc.
4. If it is possible, ask participants to observe Japanese people talking together and to record
their observations in a journal. This can be done prior to or as follow-up to this game.
5. Introduce the objectives, flow, and rules to the participants.
6. Introduce the concepts of batsu and pege. Batsu is a word Japanese will use, jokingly,
when someone has guessed wrong or made an error. Pege is very similar, though a little
less strong and more childlike. Of course most Japanese people very much value harmony,
so these two words should not be used to embarrass anyone or point out an error. But if
there is a minor error that can be made light of, or if you yourself have made an error,
these terms can preserve the positive mood of the moment.
7. Form groups of three. Groups will spend two minutes in each of three roles (speaker,
listener, scorekeeper) and then rotate.
8. Describe for the participants the rules and the roles:
Speakers will choose a topic that they can talk about excitedly for at least two minutes.
When they speak, they should communicate their excitement and pause four seconds
between each thought or sentence.
Listeners will listen in a way that encourages the speaker to hurry.
Scorekeepers will time the pauses and will give the speaker a “batsu” or “pege” sticker
for every pause shorter than four seconds. Each time a sticker is given, the scorekeeper
should melodramatically say the Japanese word for batsu or pege.
9. At the end, the person with the most stickers is kawaisoo. This means “too bad,” “unfor-
tunate,” or “poor baby” and will often be heard in conversation. The three Japanese terms
used in this activity lighten up the game, make it more entertaining, and give participants
some exposure to the Japanese language.

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