Seiza: The Japanese Proper Way Of Sitting

The Tradition Of Seiza 

The tradition of seiza refers to how people are expected to sit politely in different situations.

If you are capable of sitting in this particular manner, especially if you indulge in any traditional customs while in Japan, it’s worth trying to learn how to sit this way and in which situations it’s appropriate. 

You have likely seen this manner of sitting if you’ve witnessed any traditional kaiseki dinners or you’ve seen traditional geisha tea ceremonies, whether on television or on your last trip to Japan. 

This particular form of etiquette has been practiced in Japan for at least 200 years. There was a time in Japan when everyone was expected to sit seiza style if they wanted to participate in any traditional practice or special ceremony. 

What Seiza Means 

The term seiza very fittingly translates to correct sitting. Sitting in the seiza way includes kneeling on the floor, then lowering your bottom down to rest on your feet.

You will also rest your hands in your lap unless or until you have to use them to eat or drink tea. Your back should also be held straight when you sit this way.  

In terms of what it means to those from Japan, seiza is considered to be the polite way to sit, especially when engaging in practices that are important to various aspects of Japanese culture and history.

It is also a sign of respect for having the privilege to engage in some of these traditional ways of life. 

The Proper Steps For Sitting Seiza

There is a very particular way you are supposed to get into the seiza position. When you enter many places where seiza sitting is still practiced, you’ll be expected to take off your shoes.

You may be given house slippers to wear depending on where you are visiting. 

You will then go to your zabuton pillow at a 45-degree angle, which is used to help make sitting this way more comfortable. Some hosts will already have your zabuton by where you’re expected to sit.

You will then kneel, with your knees facing the front of the zabuton. When you’ve sat properly, your knees and legs will be resting on the zabuton

Your feet should be arranged so that your ankles are facing outwards, and the tops of your feet are sitting on the ground. Your right foot should sit on top of your left foot with only your big toes touching. 

You want your back to be straight, and your bottom should rest on your heels. Your hands should either be folded in your lap or should sit on your thighs with the palms facing down. 

Some men will have to separate their knees slightly in order to be comfortable, which is perfectly acceptable. Women will typically keep their knees together. 

Why Seiza Is Important

In Japan, people are known for living their lives with grace and humble politeness. While some of their etiquette traditions are not universally practiced, some of them are still quite important to their culture.

Thus, it’s important to respect these traditions and participate in them in a respectful manner when you are able to. 

In terms of how seiza is supposed to help someone, it’s believed to help one enter a meditative state, and encourages one to feel more at peace. It is also supposed to help someone have more control over their mind for sharper focus. 

How Seiza Is Believed To Encourage Health

While one might look at this form of sitting as being restrictive or uncomfortable, if it is done properly, it’s believed to have particular health benefits.

One such benefit is that it’s supposed to help encourage flexibility and movement in your knees and your ankles.

It also helps you practice and maintains proper posture in your back, which will help strengthen your core and your back muscles.

This is perhaps one of the best ways seiza can benefit a person, given that bad posture can lead to all sorts of back and shoulder pain when it’s a continued habit. 

Having those core muscles and back muscles engaged is also believed to have benefits for other parts of your body.

It’s believed that maintaining proper posture can help reduce the impact of headaches, especially for those who may experience frequent headaches. Your blood circulation is also believed to be improved when you sit this way. 

When Seiza Style Is Appropriate

Some of the situations where people will sit seiza style include during martial arts training, traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, and multiple course kaiseki dinners.

Those who engage in ikebana floral art will also sit in seiza when practicing this traditional art form. Additionally, those who worship in temples will sometimes sit seiza style. 

Perhaps one of the times where you will see traditional seiza sitting the most is if you are able to indulge in a traditional kaiseki dinner. 

Kaiseki Dinners 

A kaiseki dinner is one of the most memorable experiences you can have in Japan, especially if food is one of your big motivations to travel there.

These dinners consist of a few courses of food that are arranged in a very beautiful way on the plate. The menu is usually set for you, and you are served each course individually on a tray. 

This particular style of dinner traces back a very long time and combines various elements from different styles of meals. This includes inspiration from the Muromachi Period, the Higashiyama Period, and imperial court meals, among many others. 

Everything from where the food is sourced to how it is arranged on the plate is carefully curated during a kaiseki dinner. There are multiple courses served that are usually fairly small.

You could be served as many as 15 delicious courses depending on where you dine. 

If you want to eat a kaiseki dinner while in Japan, there are some ryokans and small ryotei restaurants that serve these types of meals. Kyoto is one city that offers this experience in many locations.

Just keep in mind the price is much higher for this type of meal than other meals, and you may see many diners sitting seiza style. 

If You Can’t Sit Seiza Style 

If you are unable to sit in seiza style for a long time, or not at all, do not be too concerned. There are a few ways to make it easier if you want to attempt it that are perfectly acceptable in Japanese culture.

It’s common to see people sway or wiggle their bottoms occasionally in order to avoid any body parts falling asleep. 

For instance, they often use zabuton pillows, which are often provided at various places that practice seiza, in order to relieve some pressure off of the legs and the feet.

If you have to adjust yourself, that is okay, just try to do so in a discreet way. 

If you are physically incapable of sitting in the seiza way, the Japanese people you are celebrating with will understand.

Not everyone in Japan still practices this way of sitting, so there’s a good chance you won’t be the only one. There are many other manners that are more important for you to uphold.

3 Options For Sitting Seiza Style

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.