Seiza, written in two Chinese characters means the ‘proper’ or ‘right’ way of sitting. This is the posture adopted on formal occasions in traditional Japanese culture, especially when sitting on tatami mats. In this position, the knees are bent 180 degrees with the calves tucked under the thighs so that you sit on your heels, toes pointed.
At the beginning and end of Japanese martial arts classes, e.g. aikido, karate, judo, etc., participants will sink into this position, teachers and students bowing to each other in respect. Seiza is also integral to traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement or calligraphy. It is used during Buddhist meditation and while performing on traditional musical instruments such as the koto. In the past, the Japanese had their daily lives based around seiza and always adopted this formal posture for eating, reading, writing, making conversation, and various other indoor activities.
As with the wearing of the traditional kimono, seiza is no longer popular in modern Japanese life, and in its strictest form is usually only practiced at funerals and other Buddhist ceremonies. Some modern-day parents openly discourage their children from adopting this posture out of fear their legs will 'go to sleep' after a while. Seiza is blamed for blocking proper blood circulation and stunting growth, although I have my doubts about this from a medical point of view.
One has to look in depth at this body position to fully understand its meaning. The proponents of seiza believe it leads to an alert mind and body. According to Ogasawara Kiyonobu, author of Nihon no Reihou (Japanese Manners), when we consider its mental and spiritual aspects, seiza is a peaceful and calming posture, but not one of complete rest. Being peaceful and calm, one can adjust one’s mind and pay good attention to the activities one is engaged in.
In the tea ceremony, adopting this 'correct posture' means not only showing courtesy and sincerity toward the guests or tea master; it also has a significance related to one’s field of vision and the direction of one's eyes. During the ceremony they believe that all attendees are of equal status, and so in the tatami room, where everybody sits at the same height on the ground, they should be able to observe everything at the same level. There is usually a hanging scroll of calligraphy on the wall and out of reverence participants should never look down on it, always up to it. This is why seiza is believed to be the ideal sitting position; it allows us to see others in the room as equals and to look up to something to be revered.
Owing to the modernization (or westernization) of Japanese society, the style of architecture and clothing has changed drastically. People no longer live in tatami-matted rooms and no longer wear the traditional kimono in daily life. Nowadays most Japanese eat, read and write at a table and sit down on a chair. Despite the inherent advantages of seiza, to most people it seems strangely out of place in modern-day society.
At the same time as Japan’s architecture and clothing have undergone this visible transformation, the invisible culture of this society has also been changed, sometimes to an extent not fully realized.
And this is not only happening in Japan; changes to our environment and our way of doing things inevitably affect our lifestyles wherever we are in the world. New ways of doing things may not be so much of an issue, but changes in our core values always deserve close attention. Practicing seiza is no longer of key importance, but being alert in mind, feeling a sense of equality between others and ourselves, and showing respect for something worthy of respect are all essential values we should never forget.
These values should be preserved in new shapes and forms when the traditional ones are no longer appropriate.
Editor's note: Special thanks to the author for kindly contributing this article to Japan Perspectives. Ms. Lee, who hails from Penang in Malaysia, is an enthusiastic blogger who enjoys expressing her thoughts, exchanging opinions and posting travel pics over at http://crazchyi.wordpress.com.