Many foreigners may be surprised that there is a culture of “senpai/kohai” in Japan. It is different from the relationship of “boss/subordinate,” but there is also a hierarchy.
In this article, we will introduce the culture of senpai and kohai in Japan and explain their respective roles. Knowing this may enable you to communicate more smoothly with Japanese people.
- What are Senpai and Kohai?
- Roles of Senpai
- Roles of Kohai
What are Senpai and Kohai?
Why does Japan have a culture of senpai and kohai? We will introduce the background behind the birth of it and their culture.
Background of the Culture of Senpai and Kohai
It is said that the background of the culture of senpai and kohai in Japan is the teaching of Confucianism in China. It has five rules called “五倫(Gorin)” that people must protect.
- 父子の親(fushin no shin): Father and son must be bonded with affection
- 君臣の儀(kun shin no gi): The monarch and his vassal must be tied together with compassion.
- 夫婦の別 (fū fu no betsu): husband and wife have their respective roles
- 長幼の序(chōyō no jo): There must be the order between an older person and a younger person
- 朋友の信(hō yū no shin): Friends must trust each other
The culture of senpai and kohai is said to have come from the “長幼の序.” It is not simply in honor of the older. The older one cherishes the younger one, and there is an order between the two.
Senpai and Kohai Determined by Age
The club activities of the school are the most prominent in showing the culture of senpai and kohai determined by age.
In Japanese schools, there is a club activity called “部活(bukatsu).” The relationship between seniors and juniors in club activities can be said to be the first hierarchical relationship to experience for kids. It continues after graduating from school and becomes a lifelong community that continues with age.
Not only club activities, sometimes senpai and kohai have a relationship just because they are from the same school. It is well known that there is an academic clique that brings together students from the same university in the political and business world.
Senpai and Kohai Determined by Years of Experience
Besides age, there are other factors that determine senpai and kohai: The difference in years of experience.
For example, people who join a company early are senpai, and people who join later are kohai. This is a senpai-kohai relationship that is determined by the length of experience, regardless of age.
However, here too, there is an influence of age. If the senpai who has more years of experience is younger than the kohai, the senpai will use honorifics or show respect for the kohai.
This is a tendency to be seen even in the superior/subordinate relationship. If the boss is younger and the subordinate is older, the boss may also use honorifics when talking to his/her subordinates.
This may be difficult for foreigners to understand. Please refer to the following.
Senpai/kohai determined by age > Senpai/kohai determined by years of experience > Relationship between superiors and subordinates
Of course, not all Japanese people have this tendency. Even if a subordinate is older and has more years of experience than his/her boss, he/she may value their boss/subordinate relationship. Also, there are many people who communicate politely to people in any position.
Foreigners may be able to avoid confusion by observing relationships around them, based on this tendency.
Roles of Senpai
Here we will introduce the roles that senpai mainly plays.
Guidance and Education for Kohai
For club activities, the role of senpai is to guide and educate kohai students on the club activities. And at workplaces, senpai guides the rules of the workplace and how to proceed with work.
When a person just joined club activities or workplaces, he/she doesn’t know anything. If senpai guides them, he/she will be very grateful and respect the senpai for a long time.
Since large Japanese companies hire new graduates at once, you can find many senpai people who joined the company in the previous year. It is reassuring to the kohai that there are people of similar ages and years of experience in the same workplace. And for the senpai, teaching the kohai will be their growth.
The recruitment of new graduates at once is a unique culture in Japan, but it has many advantages.
Taking Care of Kohai
Senpai sometimes takes care of kohai in private. It is the role of senpai to listen to kohai’s work concerns and provide advice, but they also give financial assistance and taking care of kohai’s lives.
“Financial assistance” sounds exaggerated, but common practice is to “treat kohai to a meal.”
There is a perception in Japan that when senpai and kohai go to a meal, senpai pays it. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to do that, but many senpais are ready for it.
This may be a considerable influence from entertainers and athletes. Entertainers tell stories that they buy something expensive for their kohai on TV. There are also episodes, such as athletes pay for the meals of younger players regardless of earnings, entertainers pay for the meals of people with a shorter career regardless of age, and so on.
Partly due to the influence of television, senpai has the role of taking care of their kohai.
Roles of Kohai
Next, we will introduce the role of kohai. There are three major roles.
- Taking care of senpai
- Giving back to senpai
- Doing the same thing as senpai to your kohai
These all come from respect for senpai.
Taking Care of Senpai
If you are in a workplace, you will support senpai for work, and if you are in private, you will take care of senpai by something like car driving. This may be close to a master-disciple relationship or an attendant.
Even if senpai gives kohai guidance/education for work or gives financial assistance, the kohai has nothing that they can give back immediately. Therefore, it is the role of the kohai to do something for the senpai.
Giving Back to Senpai
When a kohai grows up from the stage where he/she takes care of the senior, he/she will give back with something, such as a success in a job or something in private.
There is a word in Japan which has a meaning close to giving back, “仁義を通す(jingi o tōsu).” It is said that 仁義(humanity and justice) also comes from Confucian teachings, and “仁(jin)” is a rule of caring for people and “義(gi)” is a rule for people should keep. Repaying kindness to sempai is an act of taking care of the senpai and protecting a rule for kohai to keep.
Doing the Same Thing as Senpai to Your Kohai
So far, we have introduced some roles of kohai to repay the kindness to their senpai, but in reality, senpai does not expect those roles that much.
What they expect more is that the kohai does the same to their kohai people. It made the culture of senpai-kohai continued, and it has taken root in Japan today.
Senpai-kohai culture may be difficult for foreigners to understand. However, it can be said that continuing to convey the humanity and justice, not just mere hierarchical relations and financial assistance, has led to the development of the Japanese disposition of respect for courtesy.
Senpai-kohai system is a culture related to the disposition of Japanese people. Because Japan is an island country with few immigrants, it may have a function of strengthening internal ties and may have created a unique Japanese disposition.
It may be interesting to observe the environment of senpai and kohai around you. Understanding their relationships will help you facilitate communication with the Japanese people.