Seniority rules in Japan, traditionally. Sempai-Kohai values permiated Japan centuries ago, and still live on strongly in society today.
Sempai – せんぱい (or 先輩 in kanji) refers to one that is older or superior in skill. On the other hand, kohai – こうはい (or 後輩 in kanji) means “one who comes after”, or simply “junior”.
When speaking to their seniors, kohai use what’s called keigo – or honorific – language. Keigo is put into three categories: sonkeigo, kenjogo, teineigo.
Sonkeigo (honorific) language is used when one is speaking out of repect to another, usually by praising them in one way or another.
Kenjogo (humble) language is spoken to show modesty and humility, which often serves, albeit indirectly, to give praise to others.
Teineigo (polite) language is very general, and is used day to day when talking to others (especially to people one may not know). This is the only one of the three types of keigo that is not only used when talking to one’s sempai.
People also add honorific titles to their sempai’s name. For example, I may be called “Andrew san” or “Andrew sama” (more honorific). “Sensei” is also added to the names of those that are teachers and doctors.
Sempai on the other hand refer to their kohai as “Andrew kun” (male), or “Sakura chan” (females).
Three major Japanese traditions formed and strengthened the sempai-kohai values: Confucianism, the “ie” or family system, and (what was once) civil law.
Confucianism, which was adopted from China between the 6th and 9th century, stressed strict social hierarchy, and respect to elders, lords, and the emperor.
The “Ie” system, or the family system, had strong Confucian influence, and had two main principles: “the father, as chief male, had absolute power in the family, and the eldest son inherited the family estate.” And at that time, “only the eldest son had the right to inherit.”
Civil law, which mandated the use of this social structure from 1898 until 1947, “strengthened seniority rules and reinforced the traditional Japanese family system.”
Although much of social culture of Japan is now westernized and more casual/equal than sempai-kohai values, they ar estill strongly embedded in the day to day life in the workplace, as well as in sports.
In the work place, promotions are still largely based upon seniority, rather than work performance. This seems to be slowly changing however, as more business structure themselves after western businesses. In business gatherings, it is still the job of the kohai (junior) to pour drinks for their sempai.
In school, Bruce Feiler (Learning to Bow) notes that within the school dress code, the older students sometimes have their own dress code rules. For example, older students may be able to roll their sleeves up, have less shirt buttons buttoned, or (for the girls), can wear their hair more fashionably than the younger students. The older students will often police the younger students to follow these rules.
In sports, sempai often make their kohai clean their room, do their laundry, etc. According to a Japanese university student I spoke with, who is the captain of her Kyudo (Japanese archery) club, the sempai’s role in return is to teach, protect, and help their kohai.
Regardless of the fact that Japanese society as still gradually moving towards western social structure, the traditional sense of seniority remains, and is likely too remain for many years to come.
What are your feelings on these sempai-kohai values? Leave your thoughts, experiences, and comments below.
The Japanese Mind edited by Roger Davies and Osamu Ikeno
Learning to Bow by Bruce Feiler