I wouldn’t be surprising anyone when I say that Japan, even in this modern era, is steeped in bureaucracy and hierarchy. The different types of language that depend on how polite you intend to be, the layers through which information moves in a rigid top-down company structure…all nothing new, right? And yet one of the most central and ubiquitous factors of this hierarchical society remains relatively unknown: that of the Senpai-Kōhai system.
Like many Japanese words that represent concepts, Senpai (先輩) and Kōhai (後輩) don’t have direct translations, but put simply they mean senior and junior respectively. Whether it be at work, at school, sports clubs or even informal situations, the person with more time under their belt in that field will assume the role of Senpai and act as a mentor of sorts, as a guide for the Kōhai to follow. The Kōhai in turn is expected to follow the Senpai’s example, unwaveringly follow their advice, humbling themselves while simultaneously elevating their Senpai with Keigo (敬語, polite language), and also doing simple tasks for the Senpai: for example, if it’s the schools’ baseball club, the Kōhai(s) will be expected to wash the team’s uniforms and keep the field in good order. So the Kōhai is like a cross between an assistant and a protégée, while a Senpai is a cross between a mentor and a boss (however, note that your Senpai and your actual boss are two very different things: think of how a university freshman views a senior and a lecturer differently).
When the Senpai-Kōhai system works well, it works very well. A Kōhai will learn the ins and outs of a job through a guiding hand that has been through the same system, as well as learning the values of respect, hard work and respecting your elders. Senpai learn how to become leaders, how to handle newbies, and how to lead by example. Ultimately, the true value of the Senpai-Kōhai system isn’t in the work that comes out of this dynamic so much as it is about building that all-important work ethic and reinforcing the Japanese concepts of wa, seniority and hierarchy.
Well, that’s if it all works perfectly. But the world (and by extension Japan) is far from perfect, and too often I see the Senpai-Kōhai system be antiquated and stifling at worst, counterproductive and abusive at worst.
How so? Notice how I don’t say that the prime difference between a Senpai and Kōhai is their skill or experience. The Senpai-Kōhai system is founded purely in seniority: in the amount of time served regardless of how skilled they became in that time. The Kōhai is forced under the thumb of a Senpai even if it is obvious to everyone that the Kōhai is more proficient, natural and all-around better at the job than the Senpai. It’s not the Senpai’s fault, though: in Japan, this is just the natural order of things. It doesn’t mean they are ready to handle a Kōhai though. Some people who become a Senpai are simply not built to be a mentor or leader. Some Senpai will feel threatened by a skilled Kōhai and do everything in their power to abuse their position of trust, treating their Kōhai like slaves. This stunted anti-meritocracy of sorts results in a system where bright, passionate youngsters who feel ready take on the world are crushed under bitter Senpai until they are squeezed dry of all of that pesky enthusiasm and clever ideas. By the time they become a Senpai, they too will be jaded and bitter…and so the cycle continues.
I’m not saying that the Western system of all-out meritocracy is better in every way, though. New entries to a company who are full of beans and lofty ideas can leave their seasoned and long-serving seniors in the dust and feeling irrelevant. There is something to be said for heeding sage advice from someone who has been around the block a few times before. But Japan as a whole needs to ease up on the whole Senpai-Kōhai thing. Not only is it rigid and easily abused, it is pervasive in all aspects of society. We can cope with frustrating layers of seniority at work, but can we at least be allowed to forget the layers at a drinking party? Because my Senpai can’t handle his drink.