Sunday, May 9, 2010

Respecting your elders - the Japanese Senpai-Kouhai system

In Japan, the "Senpai" system is an integral part of the society, I won't go into a lot of detail here, but it's basically about respecting your elders and those with more experience with you (wikipedia here). Basically, when you join a "group" (company, club, society or even experiences such as getting pregnant, getting married etc.) you are expected to learn and pay proper respect to those who have more experience.

In normal "grown up" society this is nowadays pretty benevolent and not pushed too hard, but it can take forms close to bullying in schools and in some instances; where the junior "Kohai" have to perform tasks for the senior "Senpai".

An older colleague close to retiremeent age told me of how, when he had joined the company as a junior employee, the older people, after a day of supervising some construction work in the bad heat of the summer, went out to drink. As they had been on a construction site, they had been wearing helmets, sweating profusely. He told me how they made him go buy beer for the whole group and forced him to drink from one of his senior's sweaty helmet, guzzling it down in one go. He finished with complaining to me about how they never paid him for the beer either...

Then The Boy told me of how things had worked when he was in junior high and enrolled in the school club activities. The older student there made the juniors play the computer role-playing game in fashion on their gameboys and do the boring stuff like fighting random foes for experience points to level the character to such a point that the senior could continue the story and the fun parts. For the junior to actually do anything fun like continue the story or purchase any equipment in the game was strictly forbidden.

It's a harsh system, but someone I get the feeling that things have loosened up considerably in the later years...

6 comments:

shufuinjapan said...

I saw an interesting manifestation of the Sempai Kohai system on a train in the countryside. I was on the train when a bunch of school kids got on. It was obvious that some were Junior high and some were high school students. Being a rural area, they all seemed to know each other. Some of the HS kids sat down whilst the JHS kids remained standing on the train. Then some HS kids got off to a loud chorus of sayonaras from the JHS students. But the JHS kids remained standing even though there were spare seats. I looked around and noticed that there were still some HS students on the train who weren't sitting and it wasn't until they got off that the JHS kids relaxed and sat down. Obviously you don't want to annoy your ex sempai just in case you end up going to the same school again one day...

ThePenguin said...

and forced him to drink from one of his senior's sweaty helmet, guzzling it down in one go. He finished with complaining

And thus happoshu was born...

Fernando said...

Kind of remind me of the army system, new guys always have to clean latrines or make the 2-4am sentinel shift while the old ones just sat and relax :P

Eva said...

Hajimemashite Salaryman. I'm a Singaporean who just came to Tokyo to study Japanese. I get what you mean with this senpai-kouhai system. I think there's both good and bad points about it. It's great that some senpai will teach and look after kouhai but... what I can't stand is senpai who is inexperienced but happen to enter into the organization earlier!

Mr. Salaryman said...

Shufu - Yeah, I can see how this is more intense in the countryside where everyone know each other. Well, as long as the HS students can keep the kids in line!

Penguin - Wow, do you come up with your own material or do you have writers to supply you with witty comments like that? I think you might be onto something here; no longer pure malt!

Fernando - Yes, of course, systems like this are very much at work in the army outside Japan, probably quite similar.

Eva- Welcome here and nice to see you commenting, please make yourself comfortable, la. I guess you just have to take the good senpai with the bad ones, but I think everyone is on your side here!

Anonymous said...

Sr. Penguin gets his Kouhai to handle stuff like that - if you laugh at it he gets to hold his Kouhai's head in a toilet for a good 10 minutes while shouting at him.

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