What are Kamiza and Shimoza? 上座 ・下座って何だろう?

Which direction must we line up for our bowing ritual?JKA-line-up-Nakayama

I am afraid some of the dojo have discarded the traditional line up ritual before and after the training. I am sure there is a “good” reason why they did this but I am not going to discuss why we should keep the ritual in this article. I hope most of the readers here are still exercising this important ritual of seiza line-up.

I have received some common questions from many practitioners that are related to the line-up ritual. This ritual is a cultural matter so I can understand why many people are uncertain or confused about some of the things they are supposed to do. Let me share a couple of common questions and explain how it should be done and the reason behind it. Hopefully this information will be helpful in your training.

The most frequent question I receive is, “Should the senior students line up from left to right or the other way around? This is an excellent question as I have seen this done both ways around the world including Japan. Look at the two photos here that are the line-up done by the JKA instructors. The first photo (above) with late Master Nakayama (taken in 80’s), the first Chief JKA-line-up-right-to-leftInstructor of JKA, shows the line starting from left to right (facing front). The second one (photo left) with Ueki sensei (current Chief Instructor of JKA) shows the line starting from right to left. So it is no wonder that some conscientious practitioners would get confused. Let me explain why this happens. To do this we must learn a little about the ancient Japanese culture and its heritage that is affecting the life style of Japan.

The ancient (samurai time) Japanese culture consider left as higher or more important. In the middle ages there used to be two prime ministers to support the emperor. Their titles were Left Minster (左大臣) and Right Minister  (右大臣). As I said earlier Left Minister was the higher rank position than Right Minister. Japan was in feudal period until Meiji restoration (1868) so it held all the traditional values and culture right through Meiji period, 19th century. 

meiji-emperorHowever, this ruling was intentionally changed some one hundred years ago when the western culture was introduced to Japan. As Japan “opened its door” to the western world it adopted some western “etiquette” or culture such as clothing and seat positioning. Look at the portrait of Meiji emperor (明治天皇, 1852 – 1912, the 122nd emperor) and empress (photo right). As you can see the emperor is standing on the right side in the photo which means he is positioned on the left of his wife. In late 19th century, Japan was still keeping the old tradition of having the higher person on the left as you saw in this photo.


For Meiji restoration see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiji_Restoration)

But by the time his grandson, Akihito Showa emperor (April 29, 1901 – January 7, 1989) Emperor_Hirohito_and_empressbecame the emperor in early 20th century the position changed between the emperor and empress (photo left). Some royal advisers told them that this is the way the western monarch would position. I do not think this positioning is such an important factor among the western monarchs as I quickly search through the official photos I see the photos of Queen of England and her husband and the positions do not seem to be consistent. I am not sure if such a positioning rule is not clearly defined or exercised in Europe. Maybe the readers in Europe can send me their understanding about this matter for my education. Regardless, “correct” positioning is a very important matter in Japan so the change was made within the imperial household. As this is the model to follow for all the Japanese many did, except for some of the martial arts practitioners. For a samurai left side is safer (easier to draw sword and cut someone on the right and the reverse) thus we must remember that fundamentally left side is a higher position, kamiza (上座). There are synonim Joseki (上席, upper seat) and Masseki (末席, lower seat) but we will not go into this in this article as their meaning is very similar and the difference does not matter to the subject I am discussing here.

Kamiza or upper position is often difficult to determine, sometimes even for the Japanese. Therefore, the concept of upper side of a dojo may be a difficult one to understand for the westerners. This is not a religious matter and only a cultural etiquette but it is good to know if you are a serious karate practitioner. KamidanaHere are two easy ideas that will help you when you need to determine kamiza. To know the high position in a dojo is fairly easy because there is a kamidana (神棚) (portable shrine, photo right) or tokonoma (床の間, alcove, photo below) or a photo of Funakoshi sensei or other sensei. There is also a key factor to determine the lower position (shimoza 下座). That is the entrance or a door. It is interesting why the Japanese consider a door a lower position. It came from the samurai time that an area near a door was considered less safe as you will face an intruder there, thus it is a lower position.

tokonomaThis explanation should easily make you understand why a door or entrance area is considered as shimoza. OK it would be easy if the entrance is one side and if you can find a kamidana or a photo of Funakoshi on the other side. However, often times a door may be placed in a different part of the dojo building. Here is a blueprint of a certain dojo in Japan (below). You can see an illustration of a tokonoma and a photo in the middle of the right side wall. So it is easy to determine that the right side of this dojo is kamiza,Blue print higher position. Where is the door or the entrance to the dojo? It is placed at the bottom of the blueprint. So the bottom part of the dojo is shimoza. Therefore, in this dojo, the senior students would probably line up from the left facing to tokonoma or top of the blueprint and the junior students will sit to the shimoza direction (the door or entrance).

Again, this is the general rule and it is possible to find a dojo in Japan not paying an attention to the joza and shimoza concept. However, most of the Japanese sensei are from old school and most likely there would be a strict rule in their dojo about this matter. So I suggest you to know this concept if you plan to visit Japan to train.

I receive another common question related to the line-up so I will share the answer to this question too. They say, “I have no problem in my dojo. Everyone knows exactly where he or she should sit. The problem is when I visit the other dojo or when I participate in a mixed school seminar.” Let’s look at the situation when you visit a certain dojo for the first time and if you do not have time to ask around and find the ranks of the students there. The best guideline is to sit at the end of whatever the color of belt you wear. For an instance, if you are a brown belt take the last position of brown belt. If you are a black belt go to the end of black belt line. It should not make too much difference even if you assumed a wrong position but by knowing this guideline you will probably feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar dojo and focus your attention to the training itself.

One thing I need to add here is a particular etiquette not too many people know. If the visitor happens to be the highest rank in black belt students, where will he sit? If he is a certified instructor then he will sit in the assistant instructor’s line which is in front of the students’ line. If you are, say, nidan or sandan but not a certified instructor. All the visiting dojo’s students are junior to you, will you sit at the top of the line? I have seen this to happen but this is not considered as a good etiquette according to the Japanese dojo culture. Let me explain why. According to the Japanese etiquette the job of making ritual command such as “Seiza”, “Mokuso”, etc must belong to the head person of that dojo. This role must not be taken over by any visitor regardless of his rank. In fact, this particular case has happened in my training days in Japan. I was sandan and visited one dojo where the highest rank of the students was nidan. I sat next to him (on his right or junior side). He offered me to move to his left side. I thanked him but politely declined. With this cleared everything went smoothly in that training. If you did not follow this rule would it be a big error? Of course, it isn’t if it is outside of Japan. However if you plan to visit Japan to train knowing this rule may save you from an embarrassing situation. You may think this situation will never happen to you but if you are a yudansha do not expect that there would be always a higher rank student in all Japanese dojo. If you choose to sit at the wrong position of the line, the sensei of that dojo may tell you to move which would be an embarrassing situation for you. Sometimes they may not correct you as you are a foreigner but they will consider you as ignorant and ill-educated. It may save your face by knowing this etiquette.

This seating position is a very important matter in the Japanese life and is very pervasive. When you have a business meeting or if you attend a party or a dinner in Japan, you must know exactly where you are to sit. I am sure you have experienced this if you have visited Japan on a business trip. This kamiza and shimoza concept applies to not only a meeting room or a restaurant but it expands to almost all occasions and places. It applies not only in the rooms and places but also in a car, a bus, a train and even an elevator. You may not believe this but you are expected to stand at the “right” position in an elevator if you are with your boss, guest, etc. Not only the particular about the place or position, would you believe there is a specific order to enter and exit a taxi or an escalator? I will cover this interesting customs in a longer version of this article but I will not spend any more space here.

SamuraiAt the end of this article I want to add an interesting fact about the origin of one Japanese custom. If you visit Japan you will notice that the most Japanese people would always walk on the left side of the street. This happens no matter which city, town or a village you may visit in Japan. This happens to be the same with the automobile traffic direction. This is not because the Japanese followed the English traffic rule. Once again, it came from the long custom of the samurai, believe it or not. As you all know that samurai used to hold two swords on their left waist. If you had practiced Iaido (居合道) you know this but the tails of the swords would stick out to your left as the handle parts would be kept slightly inward (photo left). What would happen if two samurai waked across each other to their left side? The streets in Japan (especially in the feudal time) were very narrow so the tails of the swords may hit each other. If this happened then there would be a life and death fight as samurai considered their swords more important than their lives. If a merchant or a farmer accidentally hit a samurai’s sword then that samurai was permitted to cut this poor person to death. So, in order to minimize this kind of accidents all the Japanese citizens in the feudal time walked on the left side. sidewalk-in-tokyoThe people walking towards you would pass your right side and you would also pass their right side. This unwritten law was exercised over many hundreds of years all over Japan so it almost got ingrained in the DNA of the Japanese people. When you go to Japan next time check it out. The photo here (right) shows the side street in Tokyo. The people are walking on the left side of the street. If you are interested you can also watch a short video of a street in Ginza (the most fashionable district in Tokyo) in which you can see how the pedestrians actually walk.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-q6ykP8ywk. There are many non-Japanese in Tokyo but yet look at this video. You can clearly see that the people in Tokyo want to walk on the left side of the street. Don’t you think it is amazing?escarlator Here is a photo (left) of the escalators in Tokyo and here again you will go up on the left side and come down on the right side. Notice that the people on the left escalator are standing on the left side and keeping their right side open so that a passer-by can walk up the steps on their right side.

I guess I made my point that left side is very important in the life of Japan (particularly of Kanto or Tokyo region) and how the samurai traditions have the lasting effect on the Japanese. It is interesting to mention that this rule is totally opposite in Osaka. The pedestrians walk on the right side and the the people stand on the right side of the escalators. I have written about this in another article so some people may remember why the Osaka people have a different custom.  

Now have you decided which direction you want to line up in your dojo for a bowing ritual? Or are you more confused?  



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