Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Art of Conversation (in a foreign language)

Of all of the activities we do on a daily basis, I feel that the act of communicating with another person using spoken language and a series of back and forth exchanges, what we call “conversation”, holds a very unique place. If you think about all the things involved in this process, and how closely it is linked with who we are, it’s pretty amazing.

For example, our thought processes are tightly intertwined with our speech. In order to keep a conversation going we really have to use our mind, with the level of effort depending on how unique or commonplace the topic is. How we think, and how we express ourselves are two very important parts that make up who we are, what makes us special. Scientifically, the workings of the human brain are just beginning to be understood, and it’s clear there is no simple ‘equation’ for conversing. In fact, the “Turing Test” is an idea proposed by well known computer scientist Alan Turing that involves the attempt to create a computer program which can maintain a conversation that is indistinguishable from that of a human. Though there have been some minor successes, most people agree we still have a long way to come in this area.

Let’s think about what’s involved in having a conversation with someone. First, we have to be able to listen to the other person’s speech and figure out what they are trying to say. Besides the words themselves there is tone of voice, pauses, and other visual cues like body language that give us a wealth of information to interpret. Once we digest what they’ve said, we think about it and begin forming our own response on our mind, which we eventually convey to them using words of our own. We have to decide on what we want to say conceptually on a high level (for example “I agree with you”), and then some part of our brain makes decisions about word choices, expressions, and tries to fit everything together using proper grammar. Our emotions at the time may leak out into our tone or voice or gestures either purposefully or unwillingly.

Besides taxing our capacity to process information both coming in (listening) and going out (speaking), speech also heavily works our memory. We have to remember facts about ourself, the other party, and possibly other memories like events from years ago. Linguistically, we also need to access the meaning for all words involved, as well as the meaning of expressions -combinations of words that is more than the sum of their parts.

To top it all off, this entire process is typically done at breakneck speed. Passionate conversations sometimes can contain several hundred words per minute, with frequent interchanges between who is actively speaking. In a particularly fast paced conversations you may have to do both speaking and listening at the same time, consider whether you want to change your statement halfway through speaking it or stop completely, based on what the other person is saying. And as the number of people involved increases to more than two, things get even more complicated. In certain environments, like at the workplace, just finding the right timing to jump into a conversation can be a challenge, and is a skill I’m still refining myself in my native English.

The really amazing thing is that for most of us, the ability to converse like this in our native language is a relatively effortless process that we learned in our formative years with ease. Actually, let me take that last part back – I think we all did struggle to learn conversation, and language in general, when we were young – but we were single-mindedly focused on the learning process itself as opposed to how hard it was, and much of our memories from that period are quite foggy if not gone completely.

Like many things we learned as a child, the process of communicating like in our native tongue this has become second nature to us, so that we can hold simple conversations without consciously thinking. I think of this sort of activity as going on ‘automatic pilot’, where our (learned) instincts just take over.

Now all is this well and good, but the real challenge comes when we decide (or are forced) to learn a second language, especially at a later age when the part of our brain that deals with the ingraining of learned things to make them second nature has gotten a bit lazy. Besides the fact that certain processes in the brain naturally decline as we age (though this itself is debated and depends on the skill in question), the act of learning the basics of a language is something that we probably haven’t done in quite some years, especially if you consider that we learn key fundamentals of grammar and pronunciation in the very first few years of life.

I’ve come to think about these things after over a decade of learning Japanese and finding that having a real tennis-style back-and-forth conversation is one of the most difficult things to master. From an academic point of view, conversation skill is unique in that no amount of book study or practice will get you past a certain point. You can master grammar, memorize expressions and all the vocabulary you like, but it is only when you actually begin conversing with someone in a foreign language you realize that, while these things do matter, there is so much more involved, and the only way to really train those skills is actually speaking with an actual person.

Now you won’t find me using this as an excuse for weak Japanese conversation skills, or a reason to slack off. Instead, it helps me understand why the process can take years, and in doing so I’ve gained a new respect for my own native communication ability, as well as for those who have mastered a second or third language. I’ve also become more interested in how to teach conversation skills, and someday may consider a career doing this.

For those of you have taken the first big step to try learning a foreign language and experienced that “oh no!” moment where your suddenly clueless about what to say next, go ahead and give yourself a round of applause.


Though I’ve been thinking about these topics for quite some time, reading this post helped inspire me to actually write it all out.


(Featured image taken from here:

Special uses of the Japanese verb 来る (kuru), “to come”

The Japanese verb 来る (‘kuru’) is often one of the first verbs learned by Japanese students, not just because it is easy to understand but also because it is used somewhat frequently, in both it’s simple form and in a few special usages.

First let’s look at the simplest way to use this verb, where it’s meaning is similar ‘come’ or ‘arrive’.

(Note: this verb has irregular conjugation, see the Notes section at the bottom of this post)

  • 先生が来た
  • The teacher came.

And for a slightly more advanced sentence:

  • 卒業式に友達が来てくれた。
  • My friend came to my graduation.   (Note: both “my”s are implied here)

And now for the special usages, where the meaning can deviate from something physically arriving at a location. Note that in these cases the verb is usually written in hiragana as くる or some conjugated form (きた, etc.).

Special usage 1: using くる to specify the direction of an action

In Japanese, subjects and targets of actions are often omitted. One way the language makes up for this is by using the verb  くる to specify that some action is happing towards the speaker or narrator.

  • お父さんは「ありがとう」って言ってきた
  • My dad said ‘thanks’ to me.
  • 本が落ちてきた
  • The book fell towards me.

In both of these cases saying “僕に” would be unnecessary since that is already implied.

Special usage 2: using くる to describe an action that has been going on until the present time

くる can be used after a verb in the “te” form to indicate the action has been going one for some time up until now.

  • 日本語を独学で勉強してきました
  • Up until now I’ve studied Japanese on my own. (i.e. without taking classes)

In this example it’s a little difficult to capture this nuance in English, but you can think of gathering experience before ‘arriving’ at the present moment.

Special usage 3: using くる to describe something that changed or will change

Putting くる after another verb in the “te” form also can signify that there was some change that has occurred or will occur.

  • やっと分かってきた
  • I finally understand now.

Here きた (past tense of くる) emphasizes the change between “not understanding” and “understanding”. It’s interesting to note that in English a similar usage exists, for example “I have finally come to understand”

  • 僕、強くなってきたぞ。
  • I’ve become stronger.

In this case, the emphasis is on the change of becoming stronger. In this case (and the previous example), you could just remove くる and conjugate the previous verb in past tense and the sentence would be still be valid and understandable.

  • 雨が降ってきた
  • It started raining.

If きた were removed from this sentence, the feeling of “starting” to rain would be lessened and you would end up with just “It rained”.

Special usage 4: set phrase “やってくる” 

This phrase is mostly equivalent to くる, though it feels a bit less modern to me.

  • 熊がやってきた。
  • A bear came.

Special usage 5: Using くる to indicate you’ll be returning

Normally in English if we left for our job in the morning, we would just say “I’m going to work”. However in Japanese typically one says something like “I’m going to work and coming back”.

In fact, the set phrase “行ってきます” is traditionally said to family members by someone who is leaving the house with the intention to return later. The person staying behind says ”行ってらっしゃい” where ”らっしゃい” comes from いらっしゃる which is a more polite way of saying “くる”. (Confusingly, いらっしゃる can also mean “to go” or “to be”).

Another example:

  • 海に行ってくるね。
  • I’m going to the beach.

Again here the english sentence doesn’t specifically say “I’m coming back”, though it is implied.

Special usage 6: Phrase “持ってくる” used to carry or bring something back.

This technically is just an application of the first usage above (using くる to indicate direction), but it’s a common phrase so good to memorize.

  • リビングに行って、本を持ってきてくれる?
  • Would you mind going to the living room and getting a book for me?
  • 友達がゲームを持ってきた
  • My friend brought a game.

Similarly, you can use 持っていく when taking something away.


来る is one of the few verbs in Japanese with irregular conjugation. Here are some of the more common conjugated forms, for the rest and other irregular verbs see the Wikipedia entry on Japanese verbs.

  • ‘masu’ form: きます
  • Past: きた
  •  Negative: こない
  •  Past negative: こなかった
  •  Potential: これる


The rice cooker (炊飯器, suihanki) , an essential part of Japanese life

In Japan, as well as some other Eastern cultures, rice is eaten daily and products made from rice are very abundant: rice wine, sweets made from rice (mochi), even rice paper. Rice is not only relatively inexpensive and nutrient-rich, but it can be made quite easy at home in a device called a “suihanki” (炊飯器), or rice-cooker. You’re likely to see one of these at most Japanese households.

There are several different brands and sizes starting as little as $20, but the one we used at home is by the Japanese maker “Zojirushi” and runs for $150-$200 (See here for a similar model). This may seem a bit steep but these machines are quite sturdy and can last for years, and if you use it at least once daily (or even once a week) it’s completely worth the money.

To use a Japanese rice cooker you first first measure and then wash the rice to remove dirt or other impurities which are potentially present, although be careful to not over wash as some claim that reduces valuable nutrients. Then you put the rice into the machine, add the appropriate amount of water and press “start”, and the cooking process begins. It’s easy to tell the proper amount of water required due to a convenient set of marks on the inside of the machine which correspond to the number cups of rice used and the type of rice.

There are sensors built in to tell when the rice is done just right, with a total time typically around 45-60 minutes for regular white rice, but this can extend to 2 hours or longer for brown rice. If you get one of the more expensive models from Zojirushi you typically also get the ability to set a timer to start the cooking at a later time. You can take advantage of this feature and set the timer for an hour or two before you wake up, so freshly cooked rice is available without having to wait. There is also a button for reheating, so you can quickly prepare leftovers from the refrigerator. We’ve also experimented with reheating other foods like soup in our rice cooker, and though we’ve had some success the manual says to avoid this, so attempt it with caution.

The supported rice types include normal white rice, brown rice, mixed rice, and porridge. We’ve also tried Indian rice types (Basmati, Jasmati) which turned out great. On occasion we’ve found certain products which require a little less or more water than is indicated for optimum taste, so when trying a new type of rice be aware of this possibility.

Another nice thing about the Zojirushi rice cookers is they have a handle and are easy to transport, so after the rice is ready you can bring the unit from the kitchen to your dining room (or wherever you eat) for easy second helpings ( “okawari” お変わりin Japanese). They also feature a retractable cord which allows for easy storage, and a place to keep the large spoon (“shamoji” しゃもじ). The inner pot (“kama” 釜) is also removable to make the insertion of rice and water simple, and make cleaning a snap.

If you’re into Japanese culture, or just a general rice fanatic, one of these rice cookers is a must!




Japanese 調子 (choushi) – a useful term to add to your lexicon

The Japanese term “調子” is quite a multifaceted word with seven definitions in the dictionary, as well as a handful of expressions and compound words that use it. In this post I’ll talk about the usages of it that I have heard most, and I feel are most likely to be useful.

The primary definitions for this word are “pitch, tone, rhythm, manner, or condition” and though some of them seem to be completely unrelated things (“rhythm” and “tone”, for example), I feel the definitions somehow connect with one another.

The last of these, “condition”, is one of the more common usages, however when translating to English often different words are used to express the meaning. Let’s start with a simple example to see what I mean.

  • 最近、パソコンの調子が悪い
  • My computer has been acting up lately.  (lit: “The condition of my computer is bad”)

You can use the pattern “noun + の + 調子” to describe the “condition” of anything that has the potential to be working badly or working smoothly. This isn’t only for machines, but can be applied to living things, for example:

  • 体の調子がいい
  • I’m feeling pretty good.  (lit: “The condition of (my) body is good”)

While the above Japanese is natural, there is another word “体調” which can be used in place of “体の調子”, and as you can see it uses most of the same Kanji characters. So if you said “体調が悪い” it would mean you are feeling sick, or unwell.

One notable way to use 調子 is to express a common English greeting:

  • 調子はどう?
  • What’s up?

Keep in mind this isn’t exactly a 1-to-1 translation. For example if you heard someone was sick yesterday, and when you met them today you asked “調子はどう?” I think “How are you feeling?” would be a better translation. Another way to say that would be “具合はどう?”, where ”具合” (guai) has a very similar meaning to “調子”.

You can use the verb “出る” (go out, appear, etc.) in conjunction with 調子 to mean the condition of something is not able to rise above a certain point. This is often used to describe performance in sports.

  •  夜にジョギングしないと調子が出ない。
  • If I don’t jog at night I can’t get in the groove.

Another way to use 調子 is in the phrase “調子に乗る”, which amounts to getting excited and saying or doing careless things.

  • 調子に乗るな!
  • Don’t get carried away!

It can also be used to mean that things are going smoothly, though I haven’t actually heard that meaning used in real life.

As I mentioned in the start of this post, this word can also be used to mean “tone”, and that includes “tone of voice”. However the word 口調 (kuchou) is a more common way to say “tone of voice”

  • 何、その口調?
  • Whats with that tone of yours?

Finally, the phrase “その調子” can be used when complimenting someone that is doing a great job at something.

  • そう、その調子だ!
  • Yeah, thats the way to do it!



Japanese Online Retailer offering reduced shipping fees for a limited time

As I mentioned in a past post, for those studying a foreign language it’s great to supplement online resources with real paper magazines and books. I prefer to buy my Japanese reading material in somewhere like Kinokuniya (in New York and California), though at best I’ll be able to travel there once or twice a year, so sometimes I purchase stuff on online retailers like Amazon Japan.

Of course, the biggest drawback of buying books online from Japan is the shipping costs, which can amount to a big chunk of cash.

Fortunately Club Japan is offering a “0 Yen Shipping campaign”, which applies to most parts of America, England, Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Germany. This is good for books, magazines, CD/DVD (including Blu-ray), and Nintendo DS games. The only shipping type available for the discount is airmail (航空便), and other shipping types are excluded.

Although the advertising banner screams out “0 Yen!!”, as you might expect there is a bit hidden in the fine print.

What this really means it the ‘base shipping cost’ (基本料金), which typically ranges from 400 Yen to 1600 Yen is reduced to 0 Yen. The catch is that the ‘additional fee’ (加算料金) still applies, which is 270 Yen for books, and 200 Yen for CD/DVD/Blu-Ray/Nintendo DS. These translate to around $2.30, and $1.70 with current exchange rates. There are some other exceptions (magazine subscriptions don’t apply, etc.), so make sure you read all the text on the site before purchasing anything.

In spite of the fact shipping isn’t really free, it’ still a great deal, especially for anyone who doesn’t have easy access to Japanese products.

The have a specific page that gave some details here, and has a few examples to show how much you would save.

I haven’t actually bought anything from the site during the campaign period, as it just started yesterday, but if I do make any purchases I’ll let you know if there are any extra gotchas.


Japanese magazine review: 「子供の科学」 (Science for kids …

Why write nouns in part Hiragana, part Kanji? (Japanese)

As you may already know, Japanese has three different alphabets: Katakana, Hiragana, and Kanji. Many words are written in only one of these scripts (ex: カタカナ、ひらがな、漢字), and using a split of Hiragana and Kanji is required when writing verbs (ex: 食べる). However, occasionally one sees a noun also written this way, such as “子ども”. Why not just write it in all Kanji (子供) or all hiragana (こども)? While either of these is correct, seeing the mixed “子ども” is actually not uncommon at all. So why could this be?

There are many reasons Kanji, Hiragana, or Katakana might be used for a specific word, but generally speaking, writing nouns using information-dense Kanji is preferred because of quick readability. For example, “成田空港” (Narita Airport) is a succinct four characters in Kanji but nearly doubles to seven characters when written out in Hiragana (“なりたくうこう”) (Of course for those of us struggling with learning our first few hundred Kanji, we may wish everything was Hiragana, but fear not – things will get easier) There are a few reasons not to use Kanji for nouns, for example:

  • The audience is very young and knows little to no Kanji (ex: children’s books)
  • The Kanji is advanced or uncommon so that some adults may not know it
  • The word is a loanword (パソコン), or a word that describes a sound or sensation (ジャリジャリ), which are commonly written in Katakana (there are others in the category as well)
  • The author wants to avoid the stiff feeling that Kanji can invoke (流石)

However, 子ども doesn’t apply to any of the above cases. The reason it is preferred by some people is actually a bit surprising. The second character in “子供”, “供” is part of the word “お供え物”, which means a gift or offering to someone. Supposedly some parents have opposed to using this character to describe their child since “my child is not an offering”, and have complained about it in places like middle school PTA meetings. As a result 子ども is used since it is doesn’t have that connotation. Surely there are some people who would object to this reasoning and prefer the traditional “子供” wait of writing the word.

Let’s look at another case of this mixed-writing.

“障害者” (shougaisha), which means something like “handicapped person”, can sometimes be seen written as “障がい者”. For someone who is used to reading Kanji, this looks quite awkward, especially since the Hiragana is stuck in between two Kanji characters.

Once you understand that the character “害” means “harm”, and is used in words like “害虫” (harmful insect), it’s easy to see why some people might object to “障害者”, since it could be seen as implying “handicapped people are harmful” (or if you read between the lines “a nuisance to society”). This is clearly not true, but on the other hand handicapped people are usually “harmed” in some way by an ailment or accident, so it’s hard to say the character doesn’t fit in some sense. In fact, the root word “障害” means “obstacle, hindrance, or difficulty”, and this can be used as fodder by both sides of the argument, depending on whether you view the “hindurance” as the injury or the person themselves. Like  with “子ども”, there are some Japanese people who think its perfectly fine to just use the full Kanji way of writing the word (障害者).

However, if you dig deeper you’ll find there is a bit more to the story.  “障者” was previously written as “障者”, with the change to the middle character done because ”碍” was not part of the Toyo Kanji List (当用漢字)  which is the predecessor of the more well-known Joyo Kanji List (常用漢字), that contains about ~2000 characters designated for common use. Because “碍” and “害” both have the same sound (“gai”), the former was replaced with the latter (which is part of the official Toyo Kanji List).

At first this seems a good argument for writing the word as “障がい者” or even reverting back to the original “障碍者”, however if you look up the original ”碍” character in a dictionary you’ll find it has a very similar meaning (“hindrance”), so if you ask me this line of reasoning is a bit weak.

My personal feelings is that a completely different word be used, and I have seen some usage of “ハンディキャップ”, coming from the english “Handicap”, although I wonder if this has a stronger connotation of a Sports handicap in Japanese, since it is used for Golf. You may remember that a similar debate occurred in American English with the word “retarted”, which was mostly replaced by “handicapped” in modern day language.

A third word I came across recently was “親戚” (relative) written in mixed script as “親せき”. My gut feeling is that this is because one of the meanings of “戚” is “to be sad” or “lament”, though I haven’t verified that with a native speaker.  “戚” is part of the Joyo Kanji List, so it’s not because the character is not well known.


The act of writing one or more characters in a word in Hiragana while retaining at least one Kanji character is called 交ぜ書き(”mazegaki”).


Japanese movie review: Hula Girls (フラガール)

Me and my wife decided to buy this movie’s DVD from Amazon since it had quite good reviews and we were glad we did.

This film is partially based on real events, where several girls from a small mining town, Iwaki (Fukushima prefecture) began learning hula dancing after discovering a spa resort (Joban Hawaiian Center) is going to be erected in their town. At the time (around 1965), much of the towns workers who made a living working in coal mines were starting to loose their jobs as oil’s popularity increased in Japan, and the conflict between the old and the new ways of making a living is a major theme of this movie.

Without giving away too much of the plot, I’ll just say rather than the events themselves it was the fact that some of the movie’s events and characters were based in reality that made the movie interesting and enjoyable to watch. The cast was also exceptional, with two actors that I was familiar with (Yu Aoi and Etushi Toyokawa) giving great performances. In particular, the scenes where Yu was dancing by herself in the studio were very memorable, and for any fan of hers this is a must see movie. Yasuko Matsuyuki, who plays the dance teacher, is also a famous actor I believe, though I hadn’t seen her before.

Some of the movie’s soundtrack had songs from ukelele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, but it really didn’t stand out as anything special to me, simply filling the silence with a reasonably appropriate atmosphere.

Linguistically, this movie was different because it was set in Fukushima prefecture, and most of the characters (except Yasuko’s) spoke in one of Japan’s North-Eastern dialects (東北弁). Although I had a little experience with this dialect, it was very hard for me to follow what was being said and I highly recommend using English subtitles unless you want to be crazy like me and attempt it without them (or you happen to be a native Japanese speaker). Two things you can listen for are the somewhat frequent sentence ender “べ〜”, which can be used to express the speakers will or guess, and also the use of “おれ” by one or more female characters (usually reserved for male characters in Tokyo dialect). A word of caution – I believe many of the actors are not from Fukushima originally, and their intonation may not be accurate so I wouldn’t recommend using them as models if you are trying to learn Fukushima intonation.

If you’re into Japan’s culture, history, actors, or language, I highly recommend watching this, but if not then you probably wouldn’t miss too much by skipping it.



Japanese slang word: yabai (やばい)- when things get dangerous

In a previous post, I’ve discussed how Japanese has less curse words than languages like English. There are a few, however, which can pack quite a strong meaning, and in this post I’ll be talking about one such word – “yabai”.

“yabai” originally means “dangerous” (equivalent to Japanese “abunai”) or a bad situation.

  • 警察はやばい仕事です。
  • Police officer is a dangerous job.

This phrase can be also used as a expletive in a way similar to the English “shit” or “damn”.

  • やばい!課題を提出し忘れた!
  • Shoot! I forgot to turn in my homework!

There are several different variations in it’s pronunciation (when used in casual conversation), for example:

  • やばっ!
  • やべー!
  • やべっ!

Young people have taken this phrase and expanded it’s meaning to mean something extreme, similar to “very”.

  • 一個千円のクッキーなんてやばい高いよね?
  • A 1000-yen cookie is super expensive, don’t you think?     (Currently, 1000 yen is roughly $8.50)

[Note: in the above example “やばい高い” is one adjective followed by another which is technically incorrect grammar, however this is a slang expression and is actually said this way. You can say “やばく高い” which is correct but sounds less natural to me]

You could replace “super” with “crazy” in the above phrase’s English translation and you might capture a bit more of the nuance of the word.

In a similar way, you can use “yabai” to mean “amazing”, or “surprising” (similar to “sugoi”). For example, say you just found out that a great book you read is a true story and this surprised you.

  • この本、やばくない?!
  • This book is crazy!  (lit: “Isn’t this book crazy?”)

Since it’s a slang word, I would avoid this word unless you are with close friends to be safe.

One related word is “mazui” which literally means “unsavory” or “not tasty” (like food), but can also be used to describe a bad situation. However I’ve seen this phrase used mostly by adults/older people.



Japanese expression “kke” (っけ) – for the forgetful

For today’s post I’d like to focus on the Japanese expression “kke” (っけ) which is typically used at the end of a sentence, and signifies that the speaker/writer is trying to remember something. For example:

  • 今日は何曜日だっけ
  • What day of the week was it again?

This expression can be used when you are talking to yourself in an undertone, or whether you are trying to confirm something with another person.

You often see っけ used more with past tense statements, such as the following:

  • 彼に妹がいたっけ
  • I forgot, did he have a sister?
  • 海に行くのは今日だったっけ
  • Was it today we were going to beach?

Using っけ with a  present tense verb (like 知ってるっけ)has been said to have the nuance of a (non-Tokyo) dialect.

It’s important to note that even though it is sometimes used with polite language (as in “そうでしたっけ”), it is considered an informal phrase and I wouldn’t recommend using with superiors or people you aren’t on very friendly terms with. It would be generally safer to just use “か”, like in “そうでしたか”.

Sometimes you will also see っけ followed by “な” or “なぁ” as in the rock band Quruli’s song “ばらのはな”





We bought ginger ale and drank it together

I think I can still remember the taste


The above is a rough, non-literal translation, but the important thing is that by using っけな he is trying to recall an important memory.


The ”っ” in “っけ” is a small tsu, and shouldn’t be confused with a large one(つ).  it serves the purpose of adding a pause between the word that comes before it and the け.




Japanese culture highlight: “seiza” (正座) – Traditional Japanese sitting posture

“Seiza” is a Japanese traditional way of sitting which has been around since the Edo Period (17th century), and involves kneeling so that ones knees touch the floor, with feet are folded underneath, resting roughly below the spine. See this page for a picture of people sitting in a group in seiza. There are different variations in how much space you put between your knees, but it is important to make sure your back is roughly straight and avoid slouching forward.

It is interesting to note that this type of sitting is written in modern Japanese as 正座, which is made from the characters for “correct” and “sit”, which together mean something like “correct way to sit”. Originally, it was used as a posture to worship Shinto Gods or Buddha, and also for when prostrating oneself before a Shogun.

In modern Japan, some people still sit in seiza in their homes (either on tatami mats, carpet, or zabuton (square pillows)). However, now that western-style houses are becoming more popular, the practice of sitting in seiza has decreased and is less common in daily life.  It is still frequently used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, Traditional Dance, Funerals, and some martial arts including Kendo, Aikido, and Iaido.

If you haven’t before, I recommend trying this unique way of sitting yourself. If you do, avoid using a hard floor and try it just for a minute or two at first, because your legs are likely to get numb after some time. Numbness isn’t just for those new to the posture, it happens to some Japanese people as well who are used to sitting this way. In fact, in some schools this way of sitting is utilized as a form of punishment.

Another drawback of this posture is that it puts pressure on the knees and legs, and it is recommended by doctors to avoid seiza for those who have certain physical conditions.  Because of this and the numbness, I have seen people take a break from seiza to sit in indian style, and I imagine that is especially permitted for older people who have week knees.

Ironically, I sit in seiza frequently because it seems to take pressure off my back and avoids back pain which creeps in if I sit in other postures. I think this is because keeping the back straight in this position is more natural, whereas with crossed legs the back doesn’t have much support. I do it not only in my living room during meals, but even at work in a normal chair (after taking off my shoes). I usually shift positions every few minutes to avoid numbness or pain in my legs.

Related Japanese Vocabulary Words

  • 葬儀 (sougi) – funeral service
  • 日本舞踊 (nihon buyou) – Traditional Japanese dance
  • 剣道 (kendou) – Kendo (martial art)
  • 合気道 (aikidou) – Aikido (martial art)
  • 居合道 (iaidou) – Iaido (martial art)
  • 江戸時代 (edo jidai) – Edo Period  (1603-1868)
  • 神道の神 (shintou no kami) – Shinto God
  • 仏像 (butsuzou) – statue of buddha
  • しびれ (shibire) – numbness
  • 畳 (tatami) – tatami mat
  • 座布団 (zabuton) – square pillow
  • 胡座 (agura) – cross-legged way of sitting (indian style)


(Featured image also taken from the same location)