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The Chain of Command

In Japan the concept of senpai-kouhai is one of the most important ideas, however to foreign visitors, this can be one the most challenging. Gaijinpot investigates.

By 3 min read

When Mary Brinton wrote her renouned book about women in Japanese society, Woman’s Working Lives in East Asia, she commented about two office ladies who were discussing one of the most ‘awkward and funny’ things they had seen. Considering the life of an average office worker in Japan, you would expect this to be something bizarre and outside the norm, right?

Instead they were discussing about how a visitor to their company had confused a 先輩(せんぱい), senpai, and 後輩(こうはい), kouhai, (senior and protege) relationship between two workers for an actual friendship! Intriguingly, this was considered a pretty comical situation to both women. Mary Brinton concluded her story by noting that ‘although friendship is possible with one’s senpai, it is not inevitable.’

Of course, foreign people can probably understand the visitor’s confusion. The idea of groups being divided into 先輩 and 後輩 is one of the things that causes a lot of problems for long-term residents to Japan that tourists rarely get to experience.

While most countries have 先生-生徒 (teacher-student) relationships where the student respects the teacher based on his years of experience and wisdom, the 後輩-先輩 relationship isn’t necessarily based on either. Instead, the 先輩 usually has a superior status based on age or the amount of time they have been doing something, but not necessarily talent.

If you walked in a room and saw two men who were the same age, same background, but because of their birthdays one was a year higher in school than the other, you might be surprised to discover that they interact under the rules of the 後輩-先輩 custom. Like most Japanese social customs, these interactions would be apparent in the way they speak and even in the way they behave.

When talking to the 先輩, 後輩 are expected to use the です forms of nouns and ます-forms of verbs. The 敬語 (Formal) versions of verbs may be used too, whereby 行く (Go) becomes いらっしゃる; 言う (Speak) becomes おっしゃる; くれる (Give) becomes下さる; 知る (Know) becomes ご存じ; and even simple verbs like 食べる (Eat) change to the more complicated 召し上がる.

Interestingly, the senior person will not usually return the formal phrases to their junior. Some people can be surprised that the 先輩 will often use the shortest, most direct forms with their juniors, often seeming to bark responses to the junior’s flowery phrases.

While it can seem that the 後輩 doesn’t gain anything from the association, this isn’t actually true. The 先輩 is given an obligation of trust to look after and guide the 後輩. This guidance can go to extremes and you will often see the 後輩 following their 先輩’s leadership even on things as mundane as what to order in a restaurant or getting advice on projects even when the advice isn’t needed or wanted.

For most foreign people living in Japan, this relationship is encountered when playing sports, especially martial arts and, of course, in the office/ staff room. While the complicated rules and etiquette is definitely considered ‘one of those things that foreign people don’t get’ and visitors are given leeway that Japanese people would never be given, don’t be surprised if it creates some tricky situations for you in Japan.

The senpai’s opinion counts and even it is clearly wrong, so if you value your place in the organization, you should try to look for the most indirect way of communicating your dissent rather than being too direct. So, get cracking on your 敬語 and the most あいまい (vague) phrases that you can find as you can never use too many when talking to your 先輩!

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