The main reason why the Japanese prefer floor seats to chairs is Tradition. Japanese are known for their strong discipline and their pride in culture, so it is no shock that they still continue to practice that tradition with strictness and pleasure. This tradition brings along with itself also many benefits, which are also reasons why the Japanese prefer to sit on the floor to eat.
In Japan, chairs are not a common phenomenon when it comes to eating. The concept of chairs is, without a doubt, accepted in Japan, but when it comes to eating, the Japanese prefer floor seats. What people find even more shocking is that even in up-scale and five-star restaurants, people would most likely find floor seats only and not chairs.
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History of Sitting on Floor
You may have noticed that people in Japan eat sitting on the floor. It seems very uncomfortable, so why do they do it?
The custom of eating on the floor is believed to come from the Japanese religion of Shinto. It was believed that spirits (kami) inhabited all things, including nature. Therefore, people were required to show respect for the kami by showing reverence in the place where it was believed that they resided. People did this through Shinto religious practices of purification and prayer.
Thus, when families ate their meals at home, it was believed that doing so on tatami mats would please the kami residing in the mats. This eventually led to people eating on tatami mats in dedicated rooms or in front of their house with the belief that doing so pleased the kami. Eventually, this developed into a custom of sitting on tatami with shikibuton (敷布団) or zabuton (座布団) cushions and eating on a kotatsu (足温器) table–which was itself originally a low Japanese style table with an umbrella-like cover.
An example of such a custom is described as follows:
Before the Meiji period, people usually ate on tatami mats, but after the Western-style table was introduced people began to eat on tables. The custom of sitting at a low Japanese-style table with zabuton cushions spread in the Taisho period (1912-1926). One example of this is that Ms. Tsubouchi, who became famous through her work Ukiyoe Ookami, ate on a low Japanese-style table with zabuton cushions.
However, this custom was not popular amongst people who were used to sitting on tatami mats because of the discomfort caused by the height difference between the floor and the lowest spot at their feet under the table. So after World War Two, a custom of sitting on tatami mats spread again.
This “doing something in a Japanese style” is often seen as very important to the Japanese sense of beauty. As one example of this, many restaurants have a fusuma-e or picture-pasted sliding door with paintings or flower designs. The kanji characters for “fusuma-e” mean 「不破間絵」 which means not broken room pictures. In other words, the word “fusuma-e” has come to indicate those drawings done on sliding doors that seem like those from ancient times and give us an impression that we are entering into another world and taking part in their culture just by looking at them.
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How do the Japanese adapt Floor setting Culture?
This tradition was adapted from the floor culture in China, and it was adapted into a more sophisticated “Tatami culture”. A tatami is a type of flooring material and a mat, which is still used in traditional Japanese-style rooms. It was traditionally made using rice straw to form the core. This is another reason why the Japanese prefer floor seats. Tatami were not solid floors and hence, could not support chairs for any length of time. But still the Japanese preferred to use the Tatami, which happened to be compatible with the Japanese climate very well.
Another reason why the Japanese prefer floor seats to chairs is the Conservation of space. Japan is a small country; hence it has small apartments to accommodate the growing population. Having this floor culture was a way to save space. For example, after having their dinner or lunch, they could spread their bedsheets and sleep.
One more reason for the preference for floor seats in the Natural Environment of Japan is earthquakes and tsunami-prone. Should the people in Japan face an encounter with one of these natural disasters, having fewer pieces of furniture would help in a quicker and safer escape?
Sleeping on the floor and doing with fewer pieces of furniture would both mean a faster and safer escape should the big one hit.
The geography of the country, Japan, is also another reason why the people in it prefer floor seats. Japan is an island country that is isolated from other countries, hence it is free from influences and invasions. Once the trade relationship between China and Japan broke down after the Song and Yuan Dynasties, chairs were not introduced in Japan for quite a long time. The Japanese are also known to stick with their traditions and way of life; once they have found an efficient solution to things, they will hardly move on from it and hence, will stick with it.
Types of sitting on Floor by Japanese
There are many ways of sitting on the floor. Seiza meditation, which is the polite and formal way to sit. An alternative is Agura, (which requires crossing legs) and Tatehiza (sitting with one knee up) and is more common and acceptable towards men. An alternative for Seiza for women is Yoko-Zuwari (sitting with your legs to the side, but folded back on themselves) Obachan-Suwari kneeling with your bottom flat on the floor and your legs out to the sides). Finally, there is Tai-Iku-Suwari (sitting with both knees up in front of you) which is usually used for education settings.
The preference to eat on the floor goes hand in hand with their tradition of not wearing shoes in houses. But the main reason why they choose to eat like this is that of their immense respect and discipline towards their tradition and also because they were exposed late to the outside influences of other countries and hence, their own cultures and way of life.
Benefits of Sitting on Floor
Bending the knees:
Placing your buttocks on the floor can help stretch your back muscles, hips and buttocks. According to yoga instructor Sharon Gannon, yoga postures such as the plow pose and the cobra pose can help your back muscles stretch. This increased flexibility will make it easier for you to sit on the floor in a cross-legged position without discomfort.
Because sitting on the floor builds flexibility in your hips, you can move easier while seated. This mobility may help when it comes to performing daily activities that require you to squat, such as scrubbing the floor or taking out the garbage.
Prevention of cardiovascular disease:
According to researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia, maintaining an upright posture of sitting on the floor can aid in preventing heart disease. Researchers found that poor circulation due to sitting, which is caused by leaving the large muscles on your backside inactive for long periods of time, can increase your risk of cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis and hypertension.
Reduced lower-back pain:
Sitting on the floor with your legs folded is an ideal position for performing quick abdominal exercises, according to the National Institutes of Health. It can also help reduce lower-back pain.
Increased hip flexibility:
Sitting on the floor with your legs crossed or stretched out in front of you reduces stress on your ankles and knees by taking more of the weight off of them. It increases flexibility in your hips and back by allowing them to open up.
Improved breathing techniques:
Performing daily activities like vacuuming, hosing down the deck or scrubbing the floor while sitting on the floor helps improve deep breathing techniques that can aid respiratory problems such as asthma.
Increased bone density:
Sitting cross-legged will require you to use muscles that normally remain inactive when sitting in a chair. This increases the strength of these muscles and builds up bone density.
A regular regimen of breathing exercises as you sit on the floor can increase blood flow through your body, which reduces stress hormones and enhances overall health. In particular, it can help reduce menstrual cramps for women by increasing blood flow to the pelvic area.
Sitting on the floor can also help reduce back and joint pain, as well as stress and fatigue.
Learning how to meditate is an essential part of many cultures. Meditation is a practice that helps increase awareness and develop skills such as concentration. Sitting on the floor with legs crossed is often part of the meditation process, allowing you to focus on your breathing and not be distracted by discomfort.