The word Seiza (正座) literally means “Proper sitting”. It is the formal, polite way of sitting on Japanese tatami floors with knees together, back strait ,and buttocks resting on ankles. Even for Japanese, it takes a practice to get used to sitting in this posture and Seiza can be very painful for anyone who is not accustomed to it. So, why do Japanese people sit this way in Japanese houses? Is there a meaning?
What meant “To sit” in Japan
If you take a close look at the Kanji, you can learn history behind sitting culture in Japan. 正 means “The right way”, and the Kanji 座 (Sit) is composed of 4 parts: 广(Roof)＋人(human)＋人(human)＋土(Ground/Soil), signifying 2 people sitting face to face on the ground in a house. That means, the right way of sitting in Japan inside of a house has been sitting on the floor/ground with the eyes about the same level to the one you are talking to, without using any furniture. But isn’t it easier to use chairs? Why do we sit the hard way?
How did Seiza-style became the formal, right way of sitting?
The reason why we didn’t use chairs was to avoid damaging tatami mattress, which has been the essential part of Japanese traditional houses (though we see some special kinds of chairs that won’t damage tatami at Japanese inns nowadays). This thick straw mat has good breathability and is important to prevent mold to grow in a humid country like Japan. Tatami was and still is expensive ,and back then it was only used as seating for the highest aristocrats ,so rules concerning seating and etiquette were made. By the middle of the Edo period, Samurais sat in Seiza when meeting authority figures as a symbol of obedience and loyalty, and Seiza meant the respectful way to sit on Tatami. Because of this tradition, we do Seiza especially in a formal settings like at an official tea ceremony, Japanese style wedding, Noh drama, Shodo (Calligraphy), Ikebana practice (Flower arranging), or funeral. Also, it is a requirement of most Japanese martial arts to sit in this manner.
Don’t worry if you can’t do Seiza in Japan!
We know that if you are from a different country, it is very difficult to sit this way for a long time. And some people are physically impossible to do Seiza ,so nowadays it is OK not to do it even in a formal setting.
But you don’t want to be rude ,so here are some tips when you can’t do Seiza in a formal situation.
If you are not used to sitting down in Seiza position, it’s ok to have knees a little bit apart or you may sit with a cross-legged position called Agura. It is informal but acceptable especially when you eat at a low table in a Japanese restaurant.
For women, Agura is generally considered wrong and rude especially for those who are wearing skirts or certain types of traditional clothing like Kimono. Instead, Yokozuwari, one side (or both sides) of hips touching the floor, is preferred.
Even if you CAN do Seiza, you should take a break every 30 min or so to avoid decreasing blood flow. While keeping the beautiful tradition of showing respect, it is also important not to overdo it to take care of your body.
Seiza has been taught at home and schools traditionally, but taking people’s health into consideration, a new law came into effect this year. According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, forcing children to do Seiza for extended periods of time will be recognized as a punishment. It is not mandatory to do Seiza anymore, and you can still be respectful without doing it so don’t worry if you can’t!
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