In America, differences of age and status do not affect the relationship between people as they do in Japan. Students can talk to professors in very casual ways. A freshman and a senior in college can be good friends. In Japan, however, when Japanese people get together, their behaviors are influenced by an awareness of the order and rank of each person within the group according to age and social status. Respect to seniors is a social obligation that cannot be neglected. Nothing more clearly describes this hierarchal nature of Japanese society that the Japanese word "senpai," meaning a senior or superior in any academic or corporate organization in our society. The attitude toward one's 'senpai' is characterized by formality, obedience, and trust.
The relationship between inferiors or "kohai" and their "senpai" is very formal and strict. Japanese students meet their first "senpai" in junior or senior high school when they enroll in any kind of club, and this relationship lasts after their graduation. New students in the club are trained, just as soldiers are, to serve their "senpai." When they talk to their "senpai," they have to use a polite and formal language, called "keigo" in Japanese, to show respect to the senior. Whenever they meet their "senpai," they have to bow. Calling seniors by their first names is a taboo. These very strict and formal relationships are similar to those in an army.
In this army-like hierarchal system, obedience is the kohai's most important value. When students enter the university, many different kinds of "senpai" wait for them: in the clubs, in the dormitories, and in the departments of the university to which they belong. April is the month when school begins, the cherry blossoms come into full bloom, and welcome parties for the new students are seen under those cherry trees in the park. Each club, dorm, and department has its own welcome party, called "a cherry blossom viewing party." Actually, these parties aim not to appreciate the beauty of nature but to make the new students drink as much alcohol as possible. At the party, the poor freshmen have to drink all the cups of beer and "sake," Japanese rice wine, given to them by their seniors. During cherry blossom viewing parties, ambulances come to parks and pick up the drunk students. They are forced to do whatever the seniors say, no matter how unreasonable or stupid it may sound. This type of baptism is called "kenshu" when young Japanese enter Japanese companies. Rejecting one's senior's orders is considered to be rude or disruptive of the harmony of the group. "My senpai, right or wrong" is a slogan of "kohai."
Although the relationship between "kohai" and "senpai" might seem to be unfair, it is based on trust. The "senpai" cannot just expect their "kohai" to respect them and be obedient; they have to show concern and kindness toward the "kohai" and take care of them. The "senpai" often take their "kohai" to restaurants or bars. They also give a lot of advice to their "kohai" about their college study, how to work efficiently in a company, or other miscellaneous worries of "kohai." The "senpai" are supposed to know better than the "kohai" as they have more experience, and they are reliable when one is in trouble. Thus, "senpai" and "kohai" build strong emotional bonds.
The acceptance of others as one's superiors is a useful tool for teaching leadership, self-control, and self-discipline. At the same time, it can also inhibit self-development, for when individuals stop thinking and leave the decisions to their superiors, they become dependent and cease to grow in maturity. For the Japanese, following is easier than leading. By looking up to "senpai," the Japanese feel security and safety; in Japan, "senpai" play the same instructive and protective role as one's parents or teachers.
This magazine is produced by the Write Place and is funded through a St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, Minnesota) Cultural Diversity Committee allocation.
Contributors retain all rights to their work.