What’s Seiza? 8 Reasons why Japanese People Do Seiza!

What's Seiza? 8 Reasons why Japanese People Do Seiza!

Seiza (正座) is a formalised style for sitting on tatami flooring that involves kneeling down, keeping a straight back, and resting the buttocks on one’s out-turned heels. Seiza can be uncomfortable, if not actually painful, even for Japanese, so why do it at all?



 

What’s Seiza? 8 Reasons why Japanese People Do Seiza!

 

1. Formality

The simple answer relates to the formality and deference that underpins much of Japan’s traditional lifestyle. Indeed, in many situations, to assume any other posture than seiza would be considered disrespectful or uncouth. The word “seiza” means something like ‘correct or proper sitting position’ and the modern practice has its origins in the 14th century when the use of tatami flooring became the architectural norm. Seiza also reflects the strict discipline of the ruling warrior class of the time.

 

2. Discipline

Assuming and maintaining seiza requires discipline, a quality highly regarded in Japan. Unlike the Christian supplication of the middle ages, there is no ‘falling to one’s knees’ with seiza; it’s more of a controlled descent. The knees are generally kept close together, one’s weight being taken on the lower legs, and the soles of the feet turning outward to ‘cup’ one’s buttocks and protect the ankles from undue stress. One’s back should be straight but not stiff, whilst hands may be placed on one’s lap. Of course, as with any discipline, this requires practice, but if you remember that the point of the seiza is not comfort, but deference, then holding the posture will be easier!

 

3. Discomfort

Although seiza is not intended to be, strictly speaking, ‘comfortable’, it’s not an exercise in sadism or masochism either! All Japanese people (who will have learned seiza from a young age) when obliged to sit like this for any length of time, will find ways to alleviate the discomfort. In fact, developing subtle ways of shifting one’s weight without appearing to fidget rudely is as much a skill as assuming the seiza position itself! However, for some people – the elderly or infirm – seiza is just not physically possible, in which case small stools are usually provided.

 

4. Appropriacy and Decency

In a cultural environment that’s essentially floor-bound, seiza makes a great deal of sense. It avoids pointing one’s feet towards one’s host or teacher, etc., or sitting with your back to them, both of which are considered very rude. And for women in loosely fitting kimono, seiza avoids the obviously embarrassing problems that sitting cross-legged would entail.

 

5. Seiza and Women

The way that Japanese women assume seiza is most apparent with traditional cultural disciplines like the tea ceremony, shodo (brush calligraphy), and ikebana (flower arranging), as well attendant Geisha or servers at very traditional kaiseki restaurants. It is in these contexts that most foreign tourists encounter seiza. Notice that women keep their knees very close together, often folding their hands modestly on their lap.

 

6. Seiza and Men

Many foreign residents come to Japan to study martial disciplines like kendō, aikidō and iaido, and it is these contexts that have most influenced the way men assume seiza. Men tend to adopt a knees apart position, with two ‘fists’ width being normal, whilst hands are often laid flat, palm down on the tops of their thighs. In order to achieve seiza, the brief point between moving and resting is known as “kiza” (跪座), and iaido practitioners drill moving from seiza, through kiza as they draw their swords to the fighting stance.

 

7. Knee-walking

Anyone who has studied aikidō will know of “shikkō” (sometimes known as knee-walking or samurai walking) where practitioners learn to move and defend themselves from the seiza position. It is not common in other contexts these days, but a less exaggerated form may sometimes be seen with servers at kaiseki restaurants, where standing and walking normally might be seen as impolite or disruptive. At first glance, shikkō may appear to be a shuffle, but is actually far more precise and skilful. Here, the seiza is relaxed slightly and the heels kept together, whilst the motion comes from the hips, so it requires a lot of physical effort.

 

8. Other Contexts

There are many situations that either require us to sit seiza style, or where our learning unconsciously leads us to do so. Many traditional theatres and sumo arenas have special audience sections for seiza, whilst most school children will automatically assume seiza when told to sit down and be quiet! As you might expect, both Buddhist and Shinto monks can maintain seiza for extended periods, though stools or chairs are generally provided for those attending lengthy funeral and memorial services.

 



Conclusion

Seiza remains an important and enduring aspect of the formal life of the Japanese people and their culture, so if you’re likely to participate in any of the practices I have mentioned above, please try to sit seiza style; it’s not as difficult as many people think, even for those who weren’t brought up doing it.

 

What’s Seiza? 8 Reasons why Japanese People Do Seiza!

1. Formality
2. Discipline
3. Discomfort
4. Appropriacy and Decency
5. Seiza and Women
6. Seiza and Men
7. Knee-walking
8. Other Contexts

 



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