Is Seiza really the traditional way to sit for Japanese people?

May 27, 2015 Juju Kurihara Culture, History, Lifestyle, Vocabulary Tags: , , , , 9 Comments

Does Japanese tea ceremony fascinate you? Everyone sit in a small tatami room and taste bitter matcha tea. Entire ceremony follows the very elegant ritual. Tea ceremony, as well as other Japanese traditional arts such as calligraphy, kado (flower arrangement) or Aikido, carries a zen philosophy. During the ceremony, people sit in seize (正座). You haven´t seen sieza? It looks like this, sitting on your heels. 
The word seiza is written 正座 in Japanese. 正 (sei) means correct and 座 (za) means a seat. Actually the kanji for to sit is 坐 but because of the regulation of toyokanji (当用漢字/ list of kanji for daily use), it has been decided to use 座 instead of 坐. Anyway, seiza has a meaning of “sit correctly”. 
This is why, everyone, including Japanese people, thinks this is the right way to sit in Japan. 
Is seiza really the traditional way to sit for Japanese people? 
Not really. I mean yes, it´s one of the traditional ways of sitting but not the only one, moreover this way of sitting is relatively new. It was introduced after the Meiji Restoration. 
According to a specialist in mind-body interventions of ancient Japanese, Hidemasa Yatabe, the concept of seiza and even the name was created by the government structured in the Meiji period. In other word, seiza was formed in the late 19th century by learning at schools and became the formal way of sitting for Japanese people. Surprisingly, seiza is a quite new custom for Japanese people.  
Then, what was the traditional way of sitting for Japanese people? Nothing fixed. If you look at the painting 
on fusuma doors, ukiyoe or statues of the shoguns and monks, they sit in variety of ways. You will find some in sieza but they are not the majority.
You may be surprise but the master of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu (千利休) made tea in Tatehiza (立て膝) way like the portrait of a noble woman below. Can you imagine, the grave tea master makes tea with one knee up in front of the important shoguns?
Other ways of sitting are Anza (安座). You cross the toes in front of you. If you practice yoga, this may be familiar to you. 
Agura (あぐら). You cross your legs a little deeper than anza. This is a quite common way to sit on the floor for us now too. Some say Agura causes bowlegs that many Japanese girls suffer. 
Rakuza (楽座). You put the back of the feet together. I see many babies sit this way but for adults this may not be the most comfortable one. I´ve seen people having trouble with this in yoga classes. 
Rakuza seems to be a common way of sitting for the ancient Shoguns or the Emperors. This statue shows how he would sit. 
Wariza (割座) also called onesan zuwari (お姉さん座り). First you sit seiza then slide the legs on one side. Your bottom is on the floor. This samurai is even leaning onto his sword. 



Sonkyo (蹲踞) is what Japanese call, unching style (うんちんぐスタイル) because this is how people crouch in the toilet. Samurai were sitting this way even in the Edo period. In the samurai TV programs, all of them sit in seiza but in the reality, sonkyo seemed to be more common.   
Sonkyo is also called, “Yankii zuwari (ヤンキー座り)”. Bad youngsters in the 80s would sit like this and the name was established.
Kikyo (跪居). It looks like sonkyo but you lift the heels and sit on the toes. If you have seen sumo, this is kikyo. 
The image of samurai sitting seiza style seems to be the influence of TV programs and films. Have you ever sit seiza? Maybe you are better than me but I can´t do it even for five minutes. After 10 minutes, my legs are already numb. Samurai were warriors and had to be always attentive to a sudden attack. It wouldn´t have much sense if they had numb feet and could´t fight. You could say that samurai must´ve been used to it. Perhaps, but it´s not practical. Sitting seiza could impede a quick reaction to the enemies. Until the mid Edo, the correct way of sitting (seiza) was agura (cross legs) or Tatehiza (one knee up). What we call now seiza was called Kiza (危坐/跪座). 
Tatehiza is more appropriate for Samurai. This is from Iaido.   



So when people sit in seiza? 

Samurai were obliged to sit seiza to see the shogun in Edo period. It was the way to sit to show the obedience and loyalty. 


In the middle of Edo period, seiza was becoming more common. The book 正座と日本人 (Seiza to Nihonjin / Seiza and Japanese)” explains that seiza was a symbol of the control of Shogunate. Shogun and Daimyo (feudal lord) forced the lower class samurai to show the obedience. Or perhaps it was introduced as a courtesy in the hierarchy society.
When I was at school, seiza was used for a punishment. If we forgot homework, seiza. If we forgot any class material, seiza at the back of the room. If we don´t listen to the teacher, seiza. In the sense of obedience, it´s still functioning. But this could make more Japanese people dislike seiza. 
There is Japan Seiza Association in Japan. Their aim is to give better image about seiza and talk about anything related to seiza; history, furniture or event. If you can read Japanese, maybe it´s interesting to have a look.
Japan Seiza Association
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  1. John Larissou 7 years Reply

    In the tea world it is commonly accepted that in Rikyu’s day they sat tatehiza.
    However, try sitting in various ways and manipulate utensils in front of you on the tatami and you will quickly see that seiza is the most practical way to sit.
    So I believe it may have been adopted for the way of tea for this reason.
    A woman in a modern kimono has little choice, it is seiza or wariza, no other posture is possible. [The same is true for men wearing modern kimono if they do not wear hakama.]
    The official portraits of the Omotesenke Iemotos show them sitting seiza from about the middle of the 18th century [~1750+].
    Earlier portraits, if they exist, show some method with the knees apart. Their loose robes make the exact posture difficult to tell.
    Only Shoan, Rikyu’s adopted son, is shown in the tatehiza posture. Rikyu’s portrait is probably not drawn from life.
    Of course it maybe that there is some connection between fashion and sitting. As mentioned above, clothing styles may favor how to sit.
    In my experience, with practice, so long as you are not too heavy, it is possible to sit seiza for several hours comfortably.
    However I admit that sitting for a 4-5 hour chaji is a challenge and as I get older it is not getting easier.

  2. John Hillson 7 years Reply

    Very interesting article.

    From an Aikido viewpoint, I learned some pins from standing, but eventually came to another dojo who said Aikido always only pins from Seiza or Shikkodachi (up on the toes) because it was “more traditional.” When I look at Daito Ryu kata, this isn’t true. In Shodokan/Tomiki Aikido, there is much more variety and some standing pins. In Yoshinkan pins, a number are done up on one knee. Judo is older than Aikido, and this isn’t true for Judo katame waza.

    I have been working on a blog entry approaching this from the viewpoint that we have made our ground work painful/unhealthy to implement and practice, and a little one note. All in the name of respecting a history and a tradition that I came to suspect on my own wasn’t completely factual.

  3. Joe Petrovich 7 years Reply

    As always, your articles are fascinating and very informative. Jacques Payet once told an interesting story about Gozo Shioda when asked about seiza in Aikido. According to Jacques, Soke would be rather vague and say that O’Sensei suggested it was a way to build up your leg muscles and tolerance for pain. Later on, after thinking about it, Shioda had a change of heart, considering long bouts of sitting in seiza was not good for your legs or knees and that there was no real benefit. As anyone who has ever had to endure long stretches of seisa can attest to during, say, a lecture, the mind is more focused on pain or numbness then what is being said. Also, I can attest to the awful feeling when, after a long stretch of sitting you are called upon to be uke and practically break your ankle because your feet are asleep.

    I think, like most traditions, the real purpose had been altered by those with perceived authority, who themselves didn’t really understand, were forced to concoct a reasonable esoteric explanation and that is what was handed down generation to generation. I’ve seen traditions concocted first hand that had nothing to do with an innocent comment about what seemed to me to be a reasonable explanation of etiquette. My personal belief is that seiza, in a formal setting, was a way to keep the the Shogun or Daimo from being attacked because you can’t move fast if your feet are asleep. Practical. Nothing more, nothing less.

  4. Bognár Péter 8 years Reply

    Great article!
    I think I read somewhere that seiza became the way to sit in the Shogun’s court because it was very difficult to spring up and attack from it. The early Edo Shoguns were really paranoid (and with good reason!)

  5. Sean Fogarty 8 years Reply

    There’s another tea and flower teacher high up in the echelons but not the Oribe Ryu practitioner, and she insists Sen no Rikyu did not sit in tatehiza. If you look at the second link in Japanese, where this information was taken from but with apparent errors, what is actually written is that when his guests stretched out their feet and relaxed he adopted tatehiza, so he must have been in seiza to start with. The position looks more like you’re possibly calling iaigoshi as the knee isn’t raised, but with the left foot out rather than the right, if it’s like in the depiction . . .

    The Japanese link mentions that though Koreans and Muslims also sit in the position, only Japanese do for long periods of time. Before the Meiji era they did so only before people much more important than them. Sen no Rikyu was around such people. This same tea instructor (not Sen no Rikyu, the woman) has told only me to sit cross-legged in an informal tea ceremony though, perhaps out of respect to my foreignness and since my conversation class was there. It’s hard to tell . . .

  6. Sean Fogarty 8 years Reply

    Oribe Ryu? How interesting. A boss does Oribe Ryu. He’s the one better known for his pottery style, isn’t he? Anyhow, I found there are two characters for kiza and one is the same as for kikyo. One means high sitting — but then there’s the problem that this might also refer to the low stools used by elderly people to sit more comfortably in seiza. Yes, chairs to sit in seiza, weird concept. I’ve seen them at traditional Japanese restaurants being a foreigner. The other is the same as for kikyo and can mean squatting down to sit in seiza and according to the dictionary implies having one’s knees together. This doesn’t read like the sumo position at all — that’s a weird interpretation that it means being on your toes; maybe it’s confusing the characters which often happens even in Japanese. Incidentally Koreans have the same culture applied differently. You’ll note the woman in tatehiza is wearing a dress and has her left rather than right knee up. Women can go this other way which is less practical and more polite. Korean women curtsy in this tatehiza when wearing dresses. Men must adopt seiza when bowing, but this is only for formalities such as bowing at New Year’s. Normally I’m told to sit cross-legged, the position called agura written “north-eastern barbarian sitting” (i.e. Emisu) here in Japan at home: “Ashi (w)o kuzushi.” It’s just dirtier to sit with your butt on the floor rather than on your feet I suppose. Still you’d never *lean* on anything, and must keep both hands atop the table rather than rest one on your knee. The same goes for writing . . .

  7. Sean Fogarty 8 years Reply

    The “kiza” of aikido would be written with different characters — I’ve seen it with the ‘ki’ of aikido (気座) though this is not a common way to write it in Japan. The characters he writes it with mean “danger sitting” presumably because your legs can go numb (痺れる=shibireru) very easily? I wonder if that isn’t one of the main reasons it’s practiced so much. Also it just makes sense to me that when you’re sitting ready you want one or both legs under you — even the knights knew that . . .

  8. Mujyo 8 years Reply

    In Katori Shinto Ryu swordsmanship which is a school dating from the 15th century, we use a position called Iaigoshi, if you look some films depicting Samurai during or before this period you see Iaigoshi used. Also you see depictions of tatehiza and Agura frequently.
    When I went to study Oribe Ryu tea ceremony which is a pre-Edo tea school I was told not to use seize, use agura.
    So this hypothesis seems consistent to my experience also. I’m not sure if seiza is a Meiji era invention, but it seems certainly correct that it was not so formal until some time in the Edo era.
    It’s also good to note that Japanese have continued to sit on the floor with minimal furniture far longer than many other cultures, and it seems likely that then as now, when someone wanted to sit down they just did and in many conditions anything went.

  9. Ethan Weisgard 8 years Reply

    In Aikido “kiza” ,as you refer to, is a modified version of seiza – with the toes bent, and not flat as in seiza.

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