The floor ー yuka ゆか

By: Rora

Nov 23 2010

Category: Japan

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In Japan, everything is conducted on the floor.

The toilet is a good example- you squat. Often there is no bar to support you. Your calf muscles gradually learn how to extend to support your weight, but right now I still can’t squat properly with my feet flat on the ground, which puts extra pressure on my back and neck. I see people squatting everywhere, even leisurely. Two 80 year old women at the stationary store near my house had a long conversation with each other while squatting on the ground, as though there couldn’t possibly be any other way to sit, while I browsed the glitter pen aisle, flabbergasted.

Western influence has, in many places, raised Japan’s latitude a few feet up off the ground. Plenty of restaurants have the kinds of tables and chairs that I’m used to, which I euro-centrically refer to in my head as “real tables and chairs.” Hospitals, subway cars, waiting rooms at the bank- I am grateful for any opportunity I can get to sit with your legs bent at a 90 degree angle. And there are many.

As a woman- a young woman, at that- I am probably on the luckier end of the spectrum of Westerners who have to adapt to the Japanese way of sitting. I am relatively flexible. At first, I was enthusiastic to crouch, kneel and squat like the best of them. “I can do this!”  I thought. Sitting on tatami mats at restaurants was charming, exotic. It felt like meditating.

Until I herniated a disc.

Autonomous Sitting

I work at a preschool where 90% of my day is spent either directly on the floor, or somewhere below my waist level. Classes are taught sitting on the floor. Even at craft time, we spread out mats on the ground and work on those. We enforce good posture, constantly asking kids to “sit nicely” or to sit “school style,” which means they are supposed to hug their knees to their chest and look straight ahead.

I was thrown into this culture unprepared for how much it was going to wear on my bones and muscles. Kneeling and sipping udon on a Friday night was one thing, but failed miserably at surviving one month of sitting on the ground for 40+ hours a week. Sitting is not even the worst part. It’s much harder to get up off the ground, compared to getting out of a chair. You work twice as hard because you’re going twice as high up. You need certain muscles to be strong in order to do this. Because I pampered my back for the first 24 years of my life, I don’t have those. I am a “victim of the common chair.”

Meditation

Picture somebody meditating in your head. They are probably sitting in the lotus position, yes? You don’t lie down when you meditate because you’ll probably fall asleep. But why don’t you sit in a chair? Could Buddha have achieved enlightenment sitting in one? When you sit on the ground, you become aware of your body. You can feel your heart beating, you can feel your muscles settling or tensing. You become aware that you are awake.

Sitting on the ground is humble. It is easy, as it requires only cooperating bones and muscles. Nothing more.

As for me, I am spending as much time in comfortable beds as possible with extra pillows while my back heals. But I’m not giving up on the floor just yet.

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