Sitting on the floor is a form of torture for visiting tourists. In 9 years of living in Japan, I never learnt to sit properly.
I just recall pain, embarrasment and frustration. I usually ended up in a clumsy compromise that was neither the formal Japanese 正座 seiza (sitting on the soles of your feet), or the informal 胡座 agura (sitting with legs crossed).
Sitting on a chair wasn’t much easier either. Sitting on a chair involves choosing a chair. Surely the nearest one I thought. I followed this rule for 5 years.
Then one day, reading a manga aimed at teenage boys, I encountered the concept of seat status. Yes, seats have status. Not the seat itself, but the location of the seat.
Generally, the 下座 geza (the lowest status seat) is nearest the door. Presumably as it’s the most vulnerable seat to an attack by ninjas. And also it’s the most useful for passing on orders to the staff.
The furthest seat from the door，the 上座 kamiza is the highest status seat.
There are exceptions and variations for riding in taxis, or on bullet trains etc. Website posts like the one below draw attention to the difference in a taxi or a company car. The highest status in a company car is the passenger seat. In a taxi, it’s behind the driver.
Of course, seat status is not just limited to business. The next time I went with a Japanese friend to a coffee shop, I noticed they were discreetly giving way so I could have the KAMIZA.
I’d never noticed this before. Not for the first time, I realised I had been blundering around like an ignorant oaf for many years.
I began to see the consciousness of seat status everywhere. It can be a beautiful – and entertaining. I love watching the musical chairs when diners enter a restaurant. Only when the music feels right does everybody sit down.