Hierarchy is crucial in Japan, to the point that you have to sit in a meeting or stand in an elevator according to your rank. This seating or standing arrangement in Japanese business is called 席次 (せきじ - sekiji).
Higher and Lower Seat
In Japanese business etiquette, certain spots in a meeting room or other work settings are considered higher than the rest. Therefore, the sitting order is adjusted to their rank in the company's horizontal hierarchy. There is number 1, 2, 3, and so forth.
Higher seats are called 上座 (かみざ - kamiza). It means the seat of honor. Kamiza is the safest and most comfortable place to sit in the room, usually the farthest from the entrance. It is given to superiors, persons with higher status and more experience, older persons, or guests.
The opposite of kamiza is 下座 (しもざ - shimoza), the lower seat. Shimoza is the closest seat to the door or the least comfortable one. The closer the seats to the door, the more disturbance they had every time someone went in or out. The subordinates or the youngsters sit in these seats.
Sekiji practice comes from the samurai era in Japan. The superiors were placed farthest from the door to anticipate intruders and sudden attacks, which were common at that time. If there were an attack, the intruders would face the subordinates first, and the superiors could save themselves.
Nowadays, kamiza is not intended as the safest but the most comfortable. For example, if the kamiza is a chair with a comfortable backrest and handrest, then a stool (chair without a backrest and handrest) is the shimoza. The person placed in shimoza also has more tasks, such as navigating the taxi driver or pressing buttons in an elevator.
Example of Kamiza and Shimoza
Kamiza and shimoza are arranged based on multiple variables, such as the room layout and the number of people. It can be daunting to remember all the cases. However, if you understand the principle of Sekiji, you can easily decide the kamiza and shimoza in every place.
The basic rule of Sekiji:
The closer to the entrance, the lower the seat. The farther away, the higher.
Left is superior to right.
The rank of the seat/area will also be affected by the things/items inside the place. For instance, in a room with a fireplace, the seat closest to the fireplace is the kamiza.
Let’s see the example of kamiza and shimoza in various places.
It's not hard to determine the sekiji in a simple room like this. The order is clear whether it's a sofa or a single chair. The farthest from the door is the highest, and the closest is the lowest.
However, as rule number 3 above, this position may change if there are windows, paintings, or a fireplace in the room. If it’s a washitsu or Japanese-style room, the location of the tokonoma also matters. The highest seat should be the closest to tokonoma.
Here's an example of sekiji in a meeting room for 6 people. It's similar to a 4-person seating arrangement unless the highest kamiza is the middle chair, not the farthest. The reason is the center seat is the most comfortable position to speak and hear everyone in the meeting.
The illustration also shows a situation where 3 people from two companies are in a meeting. We can see the host taking the shimoza seats to honor the guests or visiting clients. It's part of Japanese manners to give great hospitality. If 6 same company members attend the meeting, the host seats 1 to 3 will be changed to 4 to 6.
Meeting room (U-shaped table)
If the meeting room has a u-shaped table, the highest seat is the side of the table with the biggest area. Then, the order starts from the room's left side because the left is higher than the right, and the door is on the right.
Meeting room (Round table)
A meeting room with a round table has the same arrangement as a u-shaped table. The highest seat is the middle side of the table with the biggest area. Then, the order starts beside the right side of number 1 (the left side of the room).
Kamiza and shimoza are also applicable to standing arrangements in an elevator. The highest position is the farthest from the entrance, so it should be at the back of the lift. And because the left is higher than the right, the highest position is on the left back.
The lowest position is in front of the elevator button, whether right or left, in case the elevator has one panel. If it has two, then the lowest position is the left front. Pushing and holding the button is the responsibility of the lowest rank or the youngest employee. They also have to be the last to enter and leave the elevator.
Driving a car
Kamiza and shimoza are also applicable to car seats. There are two arrangements depending on what car you ride, whether it’s a taxi or company car.
If it's a taxi, the lowest seat is beside the driver because whoever sits there should give directions and make payment. Although there are two doors, the highest seat is the one behind the driver. It is considered the farthest because Japan is a left-hand traffic country.
The lowest seat after the front seat in a taxi is the middle back. The reason is that it is uncomfortable to sit between two people. It's also considered less safe because, unlike the other back passengers, they have nothing in front of them.
If you ride a private car and the driver is a client or companion, the highest seat is the front. It has an unobstructed view, and the one who sits there doesn't have to navigate and pay the driver. The order in the back seats is the same as the taxi.
What about a business trip on the shinkansen? You guessed it; there's also a sekiji for shinkansen seats. The kamiza is the window seat that faces the direction of the train. It's the most comfortable position to look at the scenery and rest.
Because seating arrangements are related to status and rank, it would be impolite to sit carelessly and accidentally take someone’s place. If you can’t remember the order, the correct action is to ask and wait for someone to tell you where you are supposed to be. It may be complicated to memorize all these arrangements, but if you do, you will make an excellent impression and have great relations with your Japanese superiors and coworkers.
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