Seiza: Understanding the Japanese Art of Sitting Down

One of the admirable traits that the Japanese possess is their natural gracefulness. This comes to no surprise, as the Japanese have been known since the older days to put a high standard on acting graceful and courteous, from formal ceremonies to normal day interactions, they are always expected to practice the best etiquette.

From the ancient Japanese’ dedication for utmost sophistication rose formal standards on how to do the things that most people would now expect to be mundane and negligible. In fact, even something as simple as holding a fan requires proper etiquette Japanese. Another basic action which the olden day Japanese scrutinize thoroughly is sitting down. 

Yes, it may sound surprising, but even the forms of sitting down have standards that were followed by people back then. In contrast, such standards for sitting down and etiquette were primarily taught to persons of nobility in the West, whereas in Japan, everyone is expected to act in that similar manner. The proper standards for formally sitting down is called Seiza. 

A Brief History and Background on the Seiza Pose

Seiza, as mentioned above, is the formal way of sitting down based on ancient Japanese standards. In Japanese, Seiza is a very aptly translates to “sitting with a correct posture”, which is what Seiza is truly all about - sitting properly, with the correct posture. In a historical context, the correct posture is defined to have neatly-folded legs and an erect spine. One’s feet must be neatly tucked in place, underneath the body. In the olden days, people are not allowed to participate in formal gatherings without practicing Seiza. This would include several activities such as tea ceremonies and traditional Japanese performances. 

An interesting thing about Seiza is that it has been around for the longest time, however, it was not always addressed as a proper need. In ancient times, the people already had a knowledge of the correct sitting position, but it was not bound by set formal standards. However, the ancient knowledge of proper posture was actually not common in Japan, and ancient warriors in Japan disagreed on the sitting posture. It was other earlier nations who had a semblance of proper sitting posture instead.

The reason why the warriors in ancient Japan disliked the idea of Seiza is that the proper sitting position hinders them from quickly being able to draw their sword. Hence, it served as an unnecessary risk to their lives, and they disliked the feeling of being vulnerable and draw their sword to defend themselves. Given that fact, it was more common for ancient Japanese warriors to sit cross-legged in a more relaxed position called “agura” during gatherings.

The popularity of Seiza rose parallel to the popularity of tea ceremonies. During the Muromachi period, tea ceremonies became more and more popular, and tea ceremonies required Seiza to be practiced as the formal sitting posture. Through time, Seiza became all the more popular during a formal gathering. It was even established as a formal requirement, and the only appropriate way to sit when inside the same room with a person of great importance, such as the Shogun. 

As Japan unified and the Edo period dawned, Seiza grew even more common for people to practice. At one point, it even became common for people to practice Seize within their households using straw tatami matting, becoming the most standard sitting position. An interesting fact about Seiza is that it actually drove a Japanese behavior by which they became known for - removing one’s shoes prior to entering any room. Since the formal sitting position required the legs and feet to be folded properly, it left no provision for shoes. Hence, it became customary to remove the shoes while inside to be able to sit on top of the tatami floor.

Interesting enough, even the standard Japanese rooms were curated to fit with the proper sitting position. This brought about the popularity of Chabudai, which is a low table. Having a low table makes an ideal companion while doing the Seiza position, since having a taller table may not be ergonomic for the individuals sitting. Aside from the Chabudai, Zabutons were also employed to make sitting more comfortable. These Zabutons are the cushions which are placed on the floor for sitting down. Another alternative to Zabutons are Zafus, which are round circular cushions.

The Significance of Seiza

The Japanese consider Seiza with only the highest of regards, as it represents two important values in Japanese culture: courtesy and apology. They believe that Seiza is an essential tool to channel those specific values.

Of course, it is already a given fact that proper courtesy is the main core of Seiza. Sitting in Seiza position during at rituals, ceremonies, and while inside sacred premises is required in order for an individual to show courtesy. As mentioned earlier, this belief stems from traditional cultural practices such as tea ceremony. It is also a good indicator of how much the Japanese uphold strong values of courtesy. 

Another important representation that Seiza upholds in Japanese culture is that it serves as a symbol of apology. Someone who wishes to ask for an apology may place his or her hands in front, with the head lowered down. This form of apology is referred to as “dogeza”. This serves as a position of submission, having one accept his or her mistakes. This form of submission is also applied while in the presence of people as important as the Shogun, where one submits himself or herself before a great leader.

The Basics Seiza Positions

Performing Seiza is both a simple and hard task. Doing the prescribed sitting posture is rather easy, however, preventing the crippling pain is another story.

In order to sit in a Seiza position, one must place his or her knees on the floor. After doing such, the buttocks must be rested directly on top of the feet. Since the tops of the feet are facing down, the buttocks are supported by the heel and sole of the feet. Performing this is quite easy, and it would not take rigorous training nor years of practice to execute the position. However, it can be difficult to cope with the pain that Seiza brings. 

For one, foreigners or strangers who are not accustomed to sitting on the floor Seiza style may complain that it is much more painful to perform that sitting cross-legged. The secret as to why the Japanese have been averse to the numbing pain brought about by sitting in Seiza is because they have been taught and trained at a young age. Through practice, Seiza is meant to be more tolerable pain-wise.

Since the traditions are no longer as strict, there are already some leeways made for practicing Seiza. The most important rule of Seiza is that older people are often exempted from Seiza. This is extremely beneficial for them since people of old age have weaker knees and bone joints - making Seiza-sitting position much more difficult and painful.

Anyone who is in Japan may likely find himself or herself in a situation that would require practicing Seiza. Even tourists (aside from the elderly) are required to do so upon going to sacred locations such as temples. While it is painful, the experience may increase one’s appreciation of Japanese culture. 

One who is not used to sitting down in Seiza position may opt for a cross-legged position since modern days have made this much more acceptable. Of course, formal cultural ceremonies may frown upon this. Ladies who are wearing skirts and dresses may also want to maintain Seiza position instead. Usually, people can last in a Seiza position up to thirty minutes, However, anything more than that may be painful already, depending on one’s tolerance to pain. 

Alternatives Sitting Positions to Seiza

Those who do not prefer to sit in a Seiza position may opt for Agura, which is an alternative sitting positions in Japanese culture. However, it is important to note that this is not always allowed to substitute Seiza, more so in extremely formal situations.  The bottom line is, Seiza is still considered to be the most formal and courteous.

A more comfortable alternative to Seiza is Agura, which is the act of sitting down cross-legged. The Japanese viewed this as informal, but this type of sitting is allowed for certain situations. Usually, informal situations would include eating at a low table in a casual restaurant. However, since not Seiza may not be the most comfortable, Agura is presented as an alternative for foreigners, and elderly Japanese to help them from experiencing the numbing pain. 

In other cultures, it is common to find women sitting cross-legged as long as they are wearing proper clothes. In Japan, it is generally considered wrong for women, and female to sit in a cross-legged position. Instead, the informal sitting for women demonstrates both legs folding off to one side. Meanwhile, one side of her hips is touching the floor. This particular sitting position is called the yokozuwari. In Japanese, Yokozuwari literally translates to "sideways sitting". Another prescribed sitting posture for women is called Wariza, which resembles the Seiza a lot. However, the main difference is that the lower legs are bent to the side, rather than tucked neatly underneath the body. Another technique that others do to help with the numbing pain is to fold the feet in an overlapping manner. In this position, the big toes are overlapping from each other while sitting down. Some say that this is a good technique in order to manage the feeling of numbness brought about by sitting in Seiza.

Seiza for Meditation: Making Use of Chairs, Benches, and Stools

 An interesting use of Seiza in Japanese culture goes way beyond sitting, as some people opt to use Seiza during meditation. This form of meditation is similar to religious practices with Buddhist influence. There are actually many possible positions that one may opt for while meditating: sitting, standing, walking and lying down. It can also be done indoors, inside a quiet room, or outdoors, in a garden setting. 

Sitting happens to be the most common position for formal meditation since it allows the meditator to relax his or her mind. A benefit of maintaining Seiza position while meditating is to balance being upright while having the body relax. However, those who struggle with coping with leg numbness brought about by the Seiza position may want to just explore other meditation positions.

A good method to overcome the pain of sitting in Seiza position while meditating is to use a sitting tool. It can either be a Seiza bench, Seiza chair, or Seiza Stool. Through a sitting tool, meditation while in a kneeling position becomes much easier. It is also much more ergonomic, as sitting down helps align the spine while allowing the weight of the upper body to be spread evenly. It is also beneficial for the ankles, which may experience pain through the typical Seiza position.

On the other hand, several types of meditative sports such as yoga, allow sitting positions in cross-legged form. This is a much easier and relaxed alternative all the while. In the recent years, yoga has been gaining more and more popular so it is definitely worth checking out.

Those who are interested in learning more about Seiza meditation may find the internet particularly helpful. There is a plethora of articles, online books, and other resources that are necessary for anyone who is interested in learning about the art of meditation. The internet also provides an easy way to purchase items that are necessary for meditation, such as meditation stools, mats, incense, and other paraphernalia. 

The Benefits of Seiza

It is not surprising that many people find sitting in Seiza to be difficult and unpleasant. However, it has certain benefits that one must not overlook. As mentioned earlier, it is a good posture for meditation. In classic Japanese culture, this posture is believed to have an ability to make the practitioner calmer and more focused.

On the other hand, there are also benefits of Seiza that can be justified by medical science. For one, Seiza may be difficult to practice, but it allows core muscles to stretch out properly. This means that the abdominal and back muscles are trained somehow by sitting in this position. 

There are also ergonomic benefits that one may reap from sitting in a Seiza positions. First of all, Seiza helps in maintaining good posture. Individuals who struggle with bad posture may opt to practice sitting in Seiza immediately. Sitting in an upright position also improves the blood circulation in the body.

A rather shallow benefit of Seiza, though it is one that many people will surely appreciate, is that it keeps clothes wrinkle free. Since one is sitting in an upright position, it leaves little room for clothes to develop wrinkles, keeping them looking nice and new.

Despite the different benefits that Seiza yields, one must always remember to practice it in moderation. It may have benefits, but it also has risks, and these risks become more evident when Seiza is done for extended periods. Practicing Seiza too much can be disadvantageous to one’s knees, as it can cause terrible knee pain.