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Experiencing Japan’s Senpai-Kouhai System at Work

What are some of the ways that the Japanese system of "sempai and kohai" manifests itself during working life in Japan? One ALT shares his experience.

By 4 min read

In Japan, where seniority and experience continue to take precedence over qualifications or ability, the idea of “respect your elders” is at the forefront of daily working life. One of the ways this manifests itself in the typical Japanese working environment is the concept of a senpai (senior) and kouhai (junior) system.

These are buzz words that you probably hear thrown about a lot by both your Japanese colleagues and pseudo-intellectual wannabes who want to feel superior to their fellow foreigners, but what do these terms actually mean?

Started from the bottom

Every year around April, all across Japan, millions of fresh university graduates will enter the working world for the first time. By this point, they will have completed 13 years of schooling, plus an additional four years of university. So, they are probably feeling pretty confident about themselves.

And then begins the humbling experience of being thrown right back down to the bottom of the pile.

As a fresh graduate entering a new company for the first time, regardless of how good you may think you are or how your grades are, as a new entrant to the company, you are the lowest ranked. You are the kouhai. Your superiors, in this case pretty much everyone else in your department, become your senpai.

Role of the senpai 

In simplistic terms, a senpai is a mentor, someone you look up to at work. A good senpai will show you how everything works in the office, advise you on how best to keep the boss happy, let you know in a discreet and compassionate way if you do anything wrong, and basically do all they can to help you fit into the office environment.

In an English teaching context, and also more recently as a writer, I have found myself playing both roles. As someone who has lived in Asia for nearly 11 years, I certainly have plenty of advice and experience to share. However, I also still have a lot to learn, especially when it comes to the Japanese workplace.

Perhaps, the top-down system of management employed by most Japanese companies is one of the reasons why so many foreigners struggle to fit in with traditional Japanese companies. On the face of it, the whole senpai-kouhai thing can seem a bit oppressive — and indeed it can quite easily give way to bullying if there is sufficient oversight. In the English teaching industry, this can be a particularly problematic issue, especially if you are trying to contend with a foreign middle manager who tries to hide their own deficiencies as a leader by trying to be more Japanese than the Japanese staff themselves.

Role of the kouhai 

Back on topic, a good kouhai must also approach this whole relationship structure with an open mind. As a new entrant to a company, there is little room for ego. You must be prepared to accept criticism. You need to listen and to absorb as much information and advice as you can, especially in those first few months.

An old mentor of mine once told me during my first job as a copyboy: “You basically need to be like a sponge, soak up all the experience, advice and information that is around you, and use it in your future career.”

It’s ironic to think that a gruff Glasgow newshound’s advice could also fit so appropriately with that of a Japanese manager here in Osaka.

Of course, for the kouhai, once that first year in the office is complete, you then become a senpai of sorts to the following year’s new recruits. And so the process continues.

However, the roles of senpai and kouhai go much deeper than just a mere form of on the job training and mentoring. It runs throughout the entirety of a Japanese person’s life, both professionally and personally.

For example, I recall back in 2005, I had the privilege of training alongside some of the greatest living masters of kendo, the Japanese sword martial art.

By that time, these men were mostly in their 60s and had been doing kendo since they were children. And yet I heard one sensei, who held the rank of 8th Dan Kiyoshi, continually refer to his colleague who held the slightly higher 8th Dan Hanshi ranking, as his senpai.

It says a lot for the Japanese, that even when they have attained a lifetime of experience in something, they still have the humility to realize there are still things they have left to learn.

Now we’re here

These days, I hope that through my writings and my teacher training that I can be a senpai of sorts to the next generation of teachers and writers coming into Japan. However, when it comes to fully understanding this great country and the various foibles of its culture and people I remain very much a kouhai!

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