Masuseki (box seating) (枡席)

Masuseki, or box seating, (枡席 or 升席 in Chinese characters) is a traditional kind of auditorium in Japan. The doma (earthen floor) or wooden floor is divided into squares by wooden frames to make a space for several people to sit together. The term "masuseki" derives from the square shape called 'masu' and 'seki' which means seat.

History and background

Masuseki gradually became popular in theaters showing kabuki (a kind of traditional drama performed by male actors) and ningyo joruri (a traditional drama performed with puppets) from early in the Edo period.

Masuseki in small playhouses were generally called 'doma,' and they were the lowest priced seats in the house. A reason why the price was set so low is that early playhouses were not permitted to have a roof. Therefore, if it started to rain, the doma got soaked, with the result that the audience found it difficult to enjoy the play. Accordingly, there were no divided sections in the doma at that time.

It was 1724 when the first playhouse with a tiled roof was established, and this enabled the play to be performed even in the rain. As a result wooden flooring was adopted to cover the doma from this period onwards. The advent of the wooden floor allowed the seats to be divided permanently, which resulted in the gradual appearance of masuseki from the late 1760s. Each masuseki in the playhouse at that time had a seating capacity of seven, which cost 25 monme (old denomination). Usually, family or friends purchased the masuseki as a unit. If a stranger sat in the unit, he or she paid one shu (old denomination), one seventh of the price of 25 monme, to 'watch the play with other people sharing a seat,' and this was called 'wari-doma' (sharing a box seat).

On either side of the doma there was a mezzanine style 'sajiki,' which was one-step higher than the other seats, equipped with tatami flooring. Furthermore, above the sajiki, there were seats with tatami flooring called 'kami-sajiki' composing the top layer of the three layered structure, which was arranged to surround the center of the theater in a U-shape. Contrary to the current system seats at a higher level cost more. Thus, boarding over the whole floor created flexibility in the construction of the auditorium. The reconstruction work on the Nakamura-za Theater in 1802 established a one-step higher doma with a wooden floor in front of the sajiki for the first time. Following the example of the Nakamura-za Theater, other playhouses established later were equipped with doma at various different levels. Doma placed at the rear at a higher level were called 'taka-doma' (raised earthen floor) to distinguish them from the doma in the vicinity of the stage, which were called 'hira-doma' (flat earthen floor).

Before long, zabuton (traditional Japanese cushions used when sitting on the floor) and tabako-bon (tobacco trays, or wooden boxes containing water) were placed in each masuseki. A service where attendants delivered makunouchi-bento (lunch boxes) and drinks from the shibai jaya (tea house located within the theater) to the audience while they sat in the masuseki started at around this time.
As a play was a whole day event at that time, from early in the morning to the sundown, people attempted to make the masuseki more 'livable.'

New theaters were constructed in each city including Tokyo in the Meiji period, most of which were equipped with masuseki. Although civilization and enlightenment was encouraged in that period, the Japanese preferred 'sitting' on a zabuton to sitting on a chair. The Kabuki-za Theater, which was completed in 1889 as part of the Engeki kairyo undo (theatrical performance improvement movement), was the first theater to change all the floor seats to chair-based seating, with the result that audiences were forced to 'sit' on chairs. Since then, newly constructed theaters have adopted chair seats exclusively. As a result, most masuseki were eliminated from theaters in Japan except for those in the traditional small theaters in local cities by the early Showa period.

History and background

As the grand sumo tournament has a historical background of having been developed from kanjin zumo (fund-raising sumo held in aid of a temple or a shrine), it used to be performed irregularly in the precincts of temples and shrines, and lacked its own stadium for a long period. It was not until 1833 that sumo tournaments came to be held on a regular basis at Honjo Eko-in Temple in Edo (old Tokyo).

Unlike masuseki in theaters, the masuseki for watching sumo have been a constant feature of the sport. From the Meiji period, the dohyo (sumo ring) and the auditorium were built durable enough to last through tournaments lasting several days. Therefore, masuseki were adopted as a convenient system because it was possible to easily and freely divide the auditorium through the use of wooden frames.

In 1909 the permanent stadium 'Kokugikan' (stadium for national sports, now Ryogoku Kokugikan) was built in the precincts of Honjo Eko-in Temple. The Kokugikan not only adopted masuseki but also maintained them through its turbulent history, the stadium being burnt down due to repeated accidental fires, and rebuilt following the Great Kanto Earthquake. This became the impetus for masuseki to be recognized as an inseparable tradition as part of the facilities for the grand sumo tournament. As the Imperial Japanese Army took over the Kokugikan during the war, the grand sumo tournaments were held consecutively at Koraku-en garden baseball stadium, a sumo stadium established in the outer garden of Meiji-jingu Shrine, a temporary Kokugikan established in Hamacho Park during the war, at Kuramae Kokugikan from 1950 to 1984, finally being held at Ryogoku Kokugikan since 1985. All of these facilities were equipped with masuseki.

Comparisons between the atmosphere of the official grand sumo tournament today and that in olden times show that there have been no remarkable changes except for the wood-frame foundations of the masuseki being replaced with steel-frame foundations and the disappearance of the tabako-bon since smoking, which had been permitted in masuseki, was totally prohibited at stadiums by a regulation established in 2005.

Current situation and problems with masuseki

Ryogoku Kokugikan, Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium, and Fukuoka Convention Center, the venues where the official grand sumo tournament is held today, have adopted the masuseki of taka-doma type for almost all the seats on the first floor. The permanent floor mounted on a foundation made of fire-resistant building materials in Ryogoku Kokugikan, as well as the temporary steel-framed floor of the other three facilities, are divided into square spaces, each square measuring about 1.5 m across. A set number of zabuton are put side by side in each square.

Ryogoku Kokugikan provides three types of masuseki, 'masuseki for four,' 'masuseki for five' and 'masuseki for six.'
The majority are the traditional 'masuseki for four,' in which four zabuton are squeezed side by side into the small space.
The definition of 'masuseki for four' is 'the square has a seating capacity of four.'
Therefore, it is fine for one or two people to sit there. However, since the cost is fixed for the whole masuseki, the cost borne by each person is higher if it is occupied by a smaller number. For instance, when the charge for Masuseki C is 36,800 yen, the cost is 9,200 yen per person if the masuseki is occupied by four. Similarly, the cost is 12,267 yen per person if occupied by three, and as high as 18,400 yen per person if occupied by two. Therefore, almost all 'masuseki for four' are used by four people, even if they feel cramped in such a confined space.

In fact, considering the larger physical nature of today's Japanese, sharing a roughly 1.5 m square space between four people can be quite cramped. After the attendants have brought lunch boxes and drinks, the masuseki becomes so cramped people can hardly find room to put their feet. As part of an initiative aiming to put the brakes on declining audience figures, the Japan Sumo Association introduced 'masuseki for two' as an experiment by selling special limited tickets for the tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan, however, this has not proved popular.
On the other hand, following requests from customers, each facility in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka have begun to introduce 'masuseki for two' and 'masuseki for three.'

One more problem connected to masuseki for enjoying the grand sumo tournament relates to the way tickets are sold. "Masuseki" sounds simple enough, but there are various types ranging from masuseki near to the dohyo to masuseki placed quite far back, as well as masuseki from which people can enjoy a good view of the dohyo to masuseki from which people have difficulty getting a clear view of the event. In Ryogoku Kokugikan, however, almost all the masuseki have been graded as 'excellent,' and provide people with a good view of the dohyo, but these are monopolized by 20 sumo-jaya restaurants (tea houses located within the facility) called 'sumo annai-jo' (sumo information offices). Therefore, people are unable to buy the tickets for the 'excellent' masuseki without asking these restaurants for mediation. Certainly, it is true that people can buy tickets for masuseki from ticket agencies and on the Internet, however, in the present circumstances they can only obtain tickets where they do not enjoy a good view of the dohyo.