I first learned about the concept of “Sempai” (seniors) and “Kohai” in junior high school.
Japanese society is very hierarchical as you may already know. It is quite different from American society. Japanese people need to know each other’s positions in this unique hierarchical system before deciding how to relate to each other. It is quite sad. We should be able to become friends with anybody just because…? Why does our age, social status matter?
It does matter in Japan. It’s always been this way due to its tradition.
But we didn’t learn about this in elementary school..my parents always told me to respect older people and sensei (teachers), especially my homeroom teacher but kids didn’t know anything about “senpai” and “kohai”
Then during the first week of my middle school freshman year, my homeroom teacher told us to pay close attention to what she was about to say.
I hated her. She was a very harsh music teacher in her middle age. In short, she was a total bitch. I never liked her.
“You guys are now in junior high, that means that you are no longer in elementary school. As a junior high, you start to learn social responsibilities and basic manners that will help you prepare for adulthood.” this music teacher says.
Ok..so what does that mean? I thought “Sempai” simply refers to older people. Yes it is true, but there is more. Anybody who was year older than me is technically my “sempai” and I should interact with that person respectfully even though she hasn’t don anything special to earn my respect. And to this Sempai, I am a Kohai (younger/mentee) so Senpai looks after me (supposedly) and guide me through the new school system.
Well, in my case that ideal “mentor/mentee” relationship never really happened. It was more of a power control..Senpai wanted to bully Kohai because Senpai’s senpai bullied her last year. Well, it doesn’t sound like it is my problem but I went to the WORST public juior high in the prefecture so I had to go with the flow…remember? the nails that stick up will be hammered down in Japanese society. So I just stayed quite and bowed quietly whenever my senpai passes by and talk to older people (senpai!) with polite language. I couldn’t use “tameguchi” (casual talking)
These senpai didn’t do something special for me, nor were they really mentoring me..but anyways I did what was expected of me, and I personally felt that was insane because we had to bow to a year older (14 years old students) when I was 13..Common! Just one year.
I look back and feel this way now because I’ve been in America for too long..
So is this unique and is found only in Japan? Probably not, I would imagine that China and South Korea have similar hierarchical social systems. So my junior high years were kind of difficult because I am a respectful person and didn’t feel like I needed to be told what to do by people who are simply a few years older than me.
To me, you need to be a special person to earn my respect..don’t you agree?
Wikipedia says this Sampai/Kohai relationship is similar to Sororities groups and Fraternity Groups..maybe it is but I am not sure because in Japanese school system, there is no way out. It means that kids who aren’t part of certain clubs (tennis, swimming, music, etc etc) are still expected to follow this Sempai/Kohai system and we had to always speak to our Sempai using “desu” “masu” (polite Japanese) Kids are often bullied by Senpai outside the club so you can imagine the intensity of bullying for the kohais in these clubs…
There are some benefits to promoting this hierarchical social structure. Japanese people are known to be polite and reserved. In a way, they are trained to be that way because of this unique Sempai/Kohai system. I specifically talked about the school system, but this hierarchy is carried out into work setting even more. At work, it isn’t about the age but depending on your length of service, seniority is determined and even older staff has to be obedient to their senior staff even if she is younger than her.
It is a little complex system that I personally didn’t like because it was imposed onto me whether I liked it or not! And this system definitely took away opportunities for kids to become friends with each other..I pretty much was able to be friends with kids in the same grade. So while we were trained to be polite to other people, we didn’t get the opportunity to meet a life long friends so it was not very good.
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