Tuesday 14 July 2009

Why do we.........sit in Seiza?

Things don’t get more Japanese than sitting in seiza do they? Seiza (correct sitting) is the ‘sitting on knees’ position adopted in many Ways of life in traditional Japan, including chado (tea ceremony), shodo (calligraphy), ikebana (flower arranging) and many martial arts. Never has man risked showing disrespect to his seniors more than being unable to correctly get into, maintain, move and get out of the seiza position!

The degree of accuracy required in adopting a respectful seiza position varies according to the context, the occasion and the type of clothing worn. For example, the specific steps and etiquette required by a woman to sit in seiza wearing a tight kimono to perform a tea ceremony in front of important dignitaries may be a bit different to a man adopting the seiza position in a loose gi in a modern dojo on a normal club night. However, getting it right for the context you are in is important.

The precision of the steps for adopting seiza vary a lot from martial art to martial art. In the more modern ‘do’ arts such as karate-do and judo the subtleties of proper kneeling and moving have been lost. However in the more bugei arts such as kenjutsu , kendo, iaijutsu and iaido the precision of the steps and position of the feet, knee width etc, is much more prescribed. So why are there these differences?

To answer that you need to look at the original purpose of adopting seiza. As with many things Japanese, the seiza position was originally a Chinese development. It was a practical way to sit before the convention of sitting on chairs was adopted in Asian culture! It kept the feet out of the way when performing practical tasks like cooking. It was well suited to sitting on matted (tatami) floors and if you adopted the position from an early enough age – it was comfortable!

However, it soon became more than a practical way of sitting. A culture of etiquette and respect has long pervaded Japanese life and sitting correctly in seiza has been a part of that culture for centuries. But showing respect is only part of the answer. In Feudal Japan many aspects of etiquette had the dual purpose of also being linked to the practice of sword and other weapon arts, as well as self-defence strategies. So walking, moving, where to position the hands, what distance to stand or sit from others, how to sit etc, were all related to being able to instantaneously respond to being attacked.

A Samurai needed to be able to draw his sword from a sitting or standing position without hindrance or delay. If his seiza position was sloppy or inaccurate he would be a sitting duck. So Samurai were taught how to draw a sword instantly from seiza and how to parry a strike or remove an opponent’s sword from his grasp. Having the ability to rise up from seiza quickly by raising the right leg first, made drawing the sword easier and quicker. It also positioned him for further movement and bought him closer to his attacker.

This close association between sitting in seiza and drawing of the sword explains why the practice of seiza is much more precise in those martial arts that focus on sword. The true meaning of the etiquette involved still prevails. However in martial arts that don’t involve the use of sword the true meaning of sitting in seiza has been lost and in many dojos it is now not much more than a ritual for displaying respect at the beginning and end of a class.

It should be remembered though that sitting in seiza offers the martial artist a few moments to empty the mind of daily clutter and focus on the task they are about to embark on or, at the end of class, a moment to reflect on the training that has just occurred.

Ref: http://www.fightingarts.com/reading/article.php?id=168
wikipedia - seiza
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Pete said...

Nice summary there. My only comment is ... ouch! My ACL repair from 14 years back makes kneeling very, very painful.

And one thing that has been emphasized to me regarding bowing from seiza is to not allow the butt to rise up in the air.

Sue C said...

Hi Pete, it's definately an uncomfortable position to sit in if you're not used to it - ACL repair or not! More 'seize up' than 'seiza'.

The reason I've suddently got interested in knowing the purpose of sitting in seiza is because I've started learning the sword in my kobudo lessons and the first thing we learnt was how to defend against a sword attack when sitting in seiza.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately we don't do this anymore, but in my old club there was always a few minutes of zazen (meditation seated in seiza) before and after training, along with zarei or seated salutation. While I agree sitting on your heels in an uncomfortable/unfamiliar position can be quite painful I do feel it's important to respect tradition and the meditation (when done properly) does clear up your mind and makes you more receptive to teaching. Zen in general is a great addition to MA-training and very, very valuable on its own.

While I never did official sword-training (it's on my to-do list as far as MA are concerned) I was taught to leave the space of two fists between the knees and to always put the left hand on the mat first (the sword is normally drawn with the right), when bowing we were told to put the hands in a triangle-form in relation to eachother and always retract the right hand first (again for the purpose of quick-draw).

In any case it is indeed bad form to raise your bottom, also you should always watch the person in front of you, even when bowing, and never look directly to the ground.

That's at least what I remember from my earlier training. It's always good to maintain and respect tradition, otherwise it's mere fight-training and not MA.


Sue C said...

Hi Zara, since my club switched to the Seishin-do Shukokai Karate association we have re-introduced the bowing in seiza etiquette at the beginning and end of class. I'm starting to get comfortable with the position now and appreciate the couple of minutes meditation we do during this procedure. It helps me to leave the class feeling calm rather than wound up.

Dan Djurdjevic said...

This is a very informative post - well done Sue.

We still sit in seiza in zazen at the start and end of every class. I've copped a bit of flak on this from some of my martial colleagues who think that it is outdated and "faux-Japanese" to do so, but I think it is great for maintaining a base level of flexibility (if, unlike Pete, you can do it!).

Sue C said...

Hi Dan, (sorry about delay in replying - just got back from holiday). I think you're right about flexibility, it definitely gets easier to stay seated in seiza the more you practice it.

Charles James said...


"This particular style of sitting, called seiza, or "correct sitting," was a legacy of the tea ceremony."

DeMente, Boye Lafayette. "Japan's Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behavior of the Japanese." Tuttle. Vermont, Tokyo and Singapore. 2004.

Sue C said...

Hi Charles, thanks for adding the additional information.

Melanie Roxanne Chu said...

For me, it's the hard wooden floors that kills me. Kneeling on tatami mats is not a problem.


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