Sure, you want to fit in with Japanese culture, and you have made the effort: You’ve learned about how to handle chopsticks, and especially what to not do; you’ve studied the various ways you should and shouldn’t behave in shrines and temples; you’ve even learned enough Japanese phrases to show that you’re making an effort.
But some things take more than effort – some things may just be a bit more than you can handle. And if you’re like most westerners over the age of 20, every fear you may have of being unable to “go Japanese” can be summed up in one terrifying word: Seiza.
No, it doesn’t mean seizure, but it might as well: Seiza is the Japanese word for the way the Japanese sit, whether at home, at the temple, or – and this is where it becomes a challenge – at a meal. Especially at a nice, elegant meal like a traditional, multi-course kaiseki. You’re spending a lot of money for a traditional experience, why wouldn’t you want to sit the traditional way?
Well, for one reason, because it’s not comfortable – not for a lot of modern people. Sitting seiza-style means sitting in a way that even the occasional yoga practitioner might find tiring after not too long: On one’s knees, seat on the feet. It is a position that will not bring an actual seizure, but cramps and less-dramatic discomfort, including tingling legs, may well follow. Sitting in seiza for the length of a dinner, or a tea ceremony, is the foreigner’s nightmare scenario.
What follows is a description of seiza (and why the Japanese sit that way), a guide to different ways to finesse the position (and how not to hurt yourself), and some options for avoiding it altogether, if it’s beyond your abilities (as it is beyond some, perhaps many, modern Japanese). In any case, it’s important to remember that you’re in Japan to enjoy yourself, suffering is not necessary, and above all, relax: It’s just sitting!
The word seiza literally means “correct sitting,” which means sitting with legs bent, knees forward, and buttocks resting on the heels. The back is straight, the hands are folded in the lap, and it’s OK for men at least, and as always, to have their knees a little bit apart. And no, it’s not comfortable, at least not for long.
What’s important to remember is that sitting this way, especially in martial arts, and in temples, in a ikebana class , is that seiza is meant to convey not just politeness, but respect and devotion. It is a humble manner of sitting, and everyone can use practice in humility.
Interestingly, seiza only evolved about 200 years ago, as a sign of refinement and out of that very Japanese sense of deliberate action, similar to handing money or other objects to another with both hands. If you are unable to sit long in seiza, you can always show your cultural knowledge by pointing out that this isn’t really an ancient tradition.
Managing Seiza for Foreigners
Fortunately, the Japanese understand the problem of seiza – they are, after all, modern people, accustomed to desk jobs and infrequent at yoga, just like everyone else – and they have developed some face- and leg-saving workarounds.
First are the small, cube-like pillows (zabuton) that fit between those bent legs and under the butt give enough support and elevation to take the pressure off the feet and knees, while being discreet about your physical inadequacy. The Japanese are kind people, they understand. Don’t hesitate to ask for a zabuton.
Another way to deal with one’s feet falling asleep is to keep them moving, if only slightly. Little shifts in position, wiggling the toes, lifting ones butt just an inch or two up…at the very least, the pain this causes in your thighs will distract you from the pain in your toes. Another way is to move your knees or feet in ways that maintain your position on the floor but take the pressure off of your feet and knees. It’s cheating, but at this point, the main goal is to remain on the floor, in an attitude of humility – and comfortable.
How to avoid Seiza
Again, the Japanese understand the difficulties of sitting in seiza, so while it’s great fun to try it, keep in mind that while many manners are formal expressions of basic politeness, and are thus valuable reminders to behave oneself – analogies would be opening doors for others, saying “thank you” and the like – other manners are merely stylized rituals meant to show sophistication, and Japanese culture has more than its fair share of these.
Many Japanese don’t sit this way, “correct” or not. If you are able to comfortably sit seiza at your fancy kaiseki dinner, bully for you. But if your feet fall asleep after 10 minutes, or you make your way through it but can’t walk for the next two days, you might be going a little too far to be polite – the point of a kaiseki is to enjoy yourself, and you’re paying lots of yen for the experience. So within reason, sit however is comfortable for you.
But as with the many discomforts of travel don’t forget this: You may be in pain now, but when you return home and the feeling has returned to your feet, you’re going to have a great story to tell.