Kamiza and Shimoza
Much is written about the Japanese traditions of bowing and exchanging business cards, but less well known is the concept of positions of honor, which is referred to as Kamiza and Shimoza in Japan.
In Western culture, the most important person traditionally sits at the head of the table, whether the occasion is a company board meeting or a dinner party. The equivalent position of honor in Japan is called Kamiza (literally "top seat") and is reserved for the person with the highest rank or a special guest, while the opposite is called Shimoza (bottom seat).
The kamiza is not necessarily at the end of a table, but is simply the most comfortable seat. It will usually be the position furthest from the door where it is warmest or it might be an armchair or sofa where the important guest can sit comfortably. If the room is a traditional Japanese-style room where you sit on zabuton (cushions) on the floor, use the entrance and the tokonoma (alcove) as your reference points. The kamiza is the zabuton that is placed so the person sitting will have their back to the tokonoma.
When entering a room in a formal situation, it is important to leave the kamiza free for the most important person present. This might be your workplace superior, a business client, an elder or a special guest. The host with the highest rank sits across from the guest while the person of lowest rank sits in the shimoza position.
It is good manners to wait until the person of highest rank has sat down, or until you are asked to sit by the host. If you are unsure where you fit in, act humble and take a seat in the shimoza position. If the host then encourages you to move to the kamiza position, it is fine to do so.
Social hierarchy also governs etiquette in other situations, such as taking taxis, riding an elevator, shinkansen and airplanes. As a general rule, the person with the highest rank goes first.
- In an elevator, the person with the lowest rank should act as the operator and hold the door for people to enter and leave. The kamiza is on the left and to the rear. The area around the buttons is for the shimoza.
- In a taxi, the person with highest rank sits behind the driver, while the lowest in rank rides shotgun.
- For shinkansen (bullet trains) and airplanes, the window seat is the kamiza, the aisle seat the shimoza.
Being aware of social rank and observing the correct etiquette leaves a good impression on the people around you and makes social and business interactions smoother. Even if you are unsure exactly what to do, being polite and showing you are making an effort goes a long way.