“Following the leader, the leader, the leader
We're following the leader wherever he may go
We won't be home till morning, till morning
We won't be home till morning
Because he told us so…”
—from Peter Pan, “Following the Leader”
The road to summer seems like a long journey, after waking up to many months of rainy mornings, hot mid-afternoons, and sleeping through cold nights, on and off, since winter. As of this writing, I have just put away the futon! But, we all know once the summer heat in Japan sweeps in, hot is hot! And, foreigners just can’t wait to take off on their summer holiday. But, how does one really get an easy vacation from working in a Japanese company? Japanese are known for taking the shortest vacations on earth—the average, being from three to five days—and, one week is considered a luxury; two to three weeks, a fortune; one month, either a miracle or your next step to being fired! I know someone who flew from Tokyo to Paris for just one night, just to watch one day of the Paris Roland Garros tennis match, then returned to Tokyo the next morning. Why? Because, he had work.
So, this brings us to the senpai-kohai Japanese tradition of inter-relationships. Yup, senpai-kohai does matter when you want to take a holiday from work, because if you’re a kohai, you have to get your senpai’s permission, and normally your senpai’s vacation schedule is more important than yours, so you have to make sure your schedules don’t conflict; and, if your senpai doesn’t take a holiday off, it’s most likely you’ll be pressured mentally to do the same…well, out of courtesy. We, foreigners, don’t probably realize it but so much of Japanese life is dictated by the senpai-kohai system.
Ano ba itong “senpai-kohai”? It can be literally translated to a senior-junior relationship, like a leader-follower, or a supervisor-subordinate system. This system is uprooted in ALL aspects of Japanese life, and even in ordinary circumstances, it is important to know if the person you are relating with is on a senpai or kohai level. The kanji character for senpai begins with the “sen” character meaning “ahead,” or “first,” and the “ko” character in kohai means “after.” Both have the characters “hai” in the end that means a generation or a lifetime. Just imagine, you are a senpai or kohai for a lifetime! And, it probably is so if you live in Japan!
The senpai-kohai system originated from Confucianism that influences most of the ways of Japanese life, especially in their family systems and civil laws. Confucianism arrived in Japan from 6th-9th century, and became the underlying doctrines of the Tokugawa regime. That is how long the senpai-kohai system has existed. It came from the Chinese system of “cho-ko,” which means loyalty or filial piety. It teaches loyalty to elders, parents, older brothers or sisters. In the traditional family system, the male member is regarded as superior among others, namely, the father as head of the family, and the eldest son, because he is entitled as heir to the family; thus, all members must show him respect. Consequently, respect for senpais extend to superiors in work, to mentors in schools and social groups. In the early days, samurai warriors were trained by their superiors; and, thus, in present days, kohais in sumo, karate, and generally, all sports clubs pay respect to their senpais. And, in most sports associations, you cannot attain opportunities until you become a senpai. Schools in Japan are the best examples of followers of the senpai-kohai system. Lower-grade students look up to the higher-grade students. In school clubs, you can hear the juniors calling the seniors “senpai” instead of using their actual names. You can see the kohais cleaning the floors, running errands for their seniors, or even carrying club equipment for the senpai. They bow diligently with repeated “hai, hai,” and are always afraid to disappoint their senpai. Even after you have graduated from a university, a junior colleague may still call you “senpai,” and, when you meet for a reunion after 10, 20 or 30 years, don’t be surprised to be called still a “senpai” instead of your own name. It is, after all, a lifetime role, remember? Mind you, the kohai is truly loyal to his senpai. He will only do things the senpai tells him to do. In some cases, he also serves him favors. In social gatherings, you see the kohais serving the senpais beer, or offering them food. The senpai, on the other hand, feels obligated to guide the kohai, and teach him the proper rules. So, you think, after leaving school, the junior-senior relationship is over? Uh-uh. When you enter a Japanese company, the system prevails like the commonest thing on earth. Newly hired employees become the kohais and are expected to obey the guidance of their senior colleagues. In board meetings, you can spot the kohais because they usually sit near the doors, while the senpais are closer to the head of the table. Some kohais are also expected to serve tea or coffee to their senpai colleagues. Many also use the more polite language “keigo” toward their senpais. You know how they say that Japanese don’t work for long hours; they just stay in the office for long hours? Well, that’s true because they feel embarrassed to leave the office earlier than their senpais. And, when a senpai invites the kohai for a drink-out, it is most likely that the kohai cannot turn him down. Senpais and kohais even exist in the political scene. Junior politicians give way to their senior mentors, with the sense of loyalty so strong that it would even be hard for one to change political parties. In the music and celebrity world, young musicians and actors pay respect to their senpais, too. The system sounds militaristic, maybe because it is. When I look at junior train masters in station platforms bowing endlessly to their superiors, department store salesladies tailing behind their managers in those tiny and polite steps, firemen lined up in a platoon while having morning drill exercises, staff of stores practicing “Irasshaimase! Ohayo gozaimasu! Arigatou gozaimasu!” with their loud screams, I can’t help thinking that life in Japan is like one big military parade. And, the thing about senpai-kohai is that the senpais are usually older than the kohais. Age is critical in Japan, and the older you are, the more respectable and reliable you become. Did you notice that even pop idol groups have “ri-da-“ (leader) as head of their groups? The “leader” is usually chosen by his age. Thus, in the work force, it is the usual case that you cannot reach to top “senpai” executive level with all the benefits until you are over 40 and above.
Uh-oh…now I smell the reason why suicide is common in Japan…oops. Senpai-kohai gives the Japanese a lot of advantages, especially as foundation for their success and efficiency. After all, it pays to have more obedient citizens than rebellious activists. (Maybe Filipinos should adopt this system.) But, one wonders if one doesn’t lose himself in the senpai-kohai rules. You become so conscious of how you should be, instead of knowing who you really are. Of course, as the times modernize, some people become less dependent on the senpai-kohai system. Some eager, young enthusiasts strike out as adventurous, bold and daring, compared to their seniors. Still, these novices are just part of a small minority, for nothing seems to topple the Japanese sense of loyalty. That’s right, that’s what the kanji characters mean: an entire lifetime…
So, what’s the 11th commandment? Of course—Thou shalt obey your senpai.
Hope you get your well-deserved summer holiday!