My older brother recently paid a visit to Tokyo and could not believe how comfortable my Japanese housemates were with sitting on the floor. When eating at our low table or just lounging around watching TV, my housemates choose to sit on the living room tatami despite the presence of a fairly comfortable couch. They and other Japanese friends of mine have been known to choose tatami over regular seating at izakayas and other restaurants as well. As a foreigner in Japan, you must be ready to forgo the chair you are so accustomed to and plop yourself down on the floor. Here are a few different methods of sitting to fit whatever tatami situation you find yourself in:
Most Polite: “Seiza” (sitting on your knees)
Quoth Wikipedia: “To sit seiza-style, one first kneels on the floor, folding their legs underneath their thighs, while resting the buttocks on the heels. The ankles are turned outward as the tops of the feet are lowered so that, in a slight “V” shape, the tops of the feet are flat on the floor and big toes sometimes are overlapped, and the buttocks are finally lowered all the way down.”
Perhaps more simply explained as “sitting on your knees,” seiza (literally meaning “correct sitting”) is the seating style that will most impress your Japanese friends and acquaintances. Seiza is to be employed at all formal occasions and is mostly appreciated at informal occasions as well. However, if you are like me, you will find that your legs begin to burn from physical exertion after sitting in this position for about five minutes, and you will likely reveal this by making a not-so-subtle readjustment to your sitting situation. At this point some kind Japanese person will usually tell you that despite their Japanese origins, seiza is a pain for them as well (people say this about kanji and keigo too) and urge you to switch to a more comfortable position.
Casual: “Cross-legged” (mostly for men)
“Criss-cross applesauce,” as we called it in my kindergarten class, is the most popular sitting style among men for most occasions. This position provides the dual benefits of comfort and the ability to lean over and eat at a small table. It is certainly not as polite as seiza, and I have been around people who see it as impolite in general. However, these people seem to be in the minority, and sitting cross-legged is probably your best bet to comfortably enjoy a meal on tatami.
Casual: “Both Legs to One Side” (mostly for women)
Perhaps due to the difficulties of sitting cross-legged while wearing a skirt, Japanese women most commonly sit on tatami with both legs to one side. This has similar benefits to sitting cross-legged and is actually more comfortable in my opinion. I have seen some women sit cross-legged and some men sit with both legs to one side as well, so these gender classifications are not steadfast rules.
Nomikai (drinking party) Only: “freestyle”
When I go out drinking with my soccer club, we are almost always in rooms with tatami, and no one seems to care how anyone sits. I guess alcohol has a way of loosening up social rules. On top of that, at my local izakaya it is not uncommon to see a drunk Japanese college student laying on the floor. At this point I know that I can immediately stop worry about whether I am sitting properly.
My advice to those traveling to Japan is to always try to start sitting in the seiza position then copy what those around you are doing. I am so inflexible that I am unable to even sit cross-legged, so I generally start out sitting seiza anyways and try to stay in that position as long as possible. If I am among friends or at a nomikai, I might lean against a wall or sit with my legs under the table, both of which are technically taboo. At formal occasions, I will do my best to sit in seiza position for the whole meal.
“Horigotatsu” is my favorite style of Japanese seating because it provides me the tatami aesthetic with superior comfort. Upon first glance, horigotatsu looks like a regular tatami floor, but upon further inspection you will see that the area under the table has been carved out. This allows customers to sit on tatami but still feel like they are sitting in a chair.
If you are planning to come here, please do not worry too much about sitting on tatami in Japan. People here know that sitting on the floor can be tough for foreigners and are accommodating in this aspect (although they may laugh at you). If this kind of thing really stresses you out, stretch or do yoga to get flexible before you come here.
Looking back we can see that this post has been a ton of fun for us all. Check back here next Wednesday for more analysis of mundane topics from your boy!