Floors no longer sit well with Japanese

For many Japanese, the pain in attending a funeral comes only partly from the loss of a friend or relative. It also comes from having to sit nearly motionless on the floor, legs tucked underneath one's body, during a Buddhist service lasting a half-hour or longer.

"Everybody's legs fall asleep," said Kohryu Endo, a priest at Tenryu Temple in Tokyo. But as with a growing number of temples, Tenryu offers a remedy in its main prayer hall. "When I guide the people into the room," the priest said, "they look relieved and say, 'Thank god -- chairs.' "


Sitting on the floor has long been part of Japan's way of life. In traditional homes, people eat and sleep on straw floor mats known as tatami. Numerous Japanese cultural activities, from Zen meditation to the tea ceremony, are done completely or partly while sitting on the floor.

But in carrying out its economic miracle, Japan not only rose from the ashes of World War II, it literally picked itself off the floor. Western-style housing and furniture have become more widespread, particularly in the big cities. As a result, many people nowadays either cannot sit on the floor, or prefer not to.


So Japan is adapting. Mr. Endo's sect of Buddhism has even developed a form of Zen meditation to be practiced while sitting in a chair, rather than on the floor in the traditional lotus position.

Many restaurants that use tatami mats now have holes in the floor under the table for customers to put their legs.

"It's best for customers to enjoy their dinners while at ease," said Takako Osuga, a restaurant manager who said she witnessed too many customers, especially old ones with brittle bones, having difficulty sitting on the floor. "They had trouble even standing up to go to the bathroom."

The position that is most prone to make the legs go numb is known as seiza, which means formal sitting and is the form used for the tea ceremony and Buddhist services. The spine is kept straight and the legs are folded underneath the body with knees on the ground, the tops of the feet flat on the ground with the soles facing upward and toes pointing backward, and the rump resting on the heels.

Since it is virtually impossible to get up quickly from this position for purposes such as lunging at one's enemy, seiza is considered a sign of respect and attentiveness. Schoolchildren being punished are sometimes made to sit seiza.

Those who can do it say seiza is the most comfortable way of sitting on the ground, as well as the most beautiful. But those who cannot tell a different tale.

Sayaka Sasaki, 14, hates the class in her junior high school at which she is made to sit seiza for 10 minutes. "I just stumble after sitting for so long," she said. "I cannot stand straight because my legs are so numb." She said there was a tatami room in her house but "I never use it."

Not everyone is happy about the decline of the traditional way of life. Proper style on the floor, for instance, is still considered desirable for a woman of good breeding.


Seiza "shows purity of heart," said Makiko Suzuki, a teacher at the Ogasawara School, which started 800 years ago to train samurai but now functions mainly as a finishing school to teach young women traditional Japanese manners.

Those who prefer the old ways say there is a certain practicality to it, as well as elegance. "The inconvenience of the chair culture is that you can only invite as many people as there are chairs," said Kimikazu Imagawa, director general of the Japan National Tatami Association. "With tatami, you can invite as many people as you want."

Similarly, if there is a bed in a room it can be used only as a bedroom. But a tatami room can be used as a dining or recreation room during the day and be converted to a bedroom at night by spreading out a futon. This economical use of space is a big selling point in tiny Japanese homes.

Then there are those who say too much reliance on chairs is bad for the health.

Dr. Yoshiaki Mori, a professor of rehabilitative medicine at Showa University, said that because they don't sit seiza, young people are prone to a particular arthritic condition of the knee that once did not exist in Japan. Seiza provides a thorough workout for the knees, he explained. Without seiza, young people are becoming, well, weak-kneed.

Others, however, think that seiza stunts the legs' growth and that its decline is one reason today's young people are several inches taller than their counterparts were 30 or 40 years ago. Still others reverse the cause and effect. They argue that the people no longer like to sit on the floor because they have longer legs, the result of better nutrition.


The invasion of the chairs has posed a challenge to the tatami mat industry. About 20 million mats are sold each year, a number that has been fairly steady for the last 10 years but is down about one-third from the peak in the 1950s and 1960s, according to Masayoshi Arai, a tatami expert.

The tatami industry is not taking all this sitting down. Tatami makers have developed mats that can be easily placed on top of a wooden floor, like a throw rug. They are coming out with mats in bright colors to appeal to young people. And in an effort to continue to have Japanese people sit on their products the manufacturers are even now using tatami to make -- gasp -- chairs.