If you’ve studied Japanese culture at all, you’ve likely come across the words senpai and kohai. What do these words mean exactly? The truth is that the senpai/kohai relationship in Japan is one of the most important systems that the people there follow. The basic idea behind it is that the more experienced person is the senpai and the less experienced person is the kohai. This is particularly true in schools, clubs, and places of work. In these situations, the senpai acts as a friend and mentor to the newer, less experienced person in order to help guide and teach them. They are in charge of keeping tabs on the new recruit and help them navigate the waters by showing them how things are done, how to please the boss/coach and other things of that nature.
Sounds pretty great for the kohai, right? They get a new friend who is usually around their same age and a mentor all in one. What’s the catch? Respect. If you’re the kohai in the relationship, you show respect to your elder at all times. You do the menial tasks that no one else really wants to do, you pour the drinks at parties and functions, and you show deference to your senpai as much as you possibly can.
This is a system that has been in place since the beginning of Japanese history. It’s not going to disappear at any point in the near future so if you end up staying in Japan for an extended period of time, you should probably do your best to get used to it as soon as possible.
If it sounds tough, that would be because it can be and before you ask, yes there have been cases of senpai letting the power go to their heads to the point of being severely punished for abusing their kohai. In the modern era, the senpai/kohai system has relaxed a little. With the economic bubble burst of 1992, more senior members of the workforce suddenly found themselves having to find new companies to work for which led to kohai appearing who were physically older than their senpai. In other circles, the extreme respect that was expected from the younger members of the team is being lessened as well (though the appropriate level of politeness in language is still expected).
The general attitude towards the senpai system is acceptance though there are still plenty of critics within Japan who are reluctant to accept it or even completely indifferent. Many people feel that the system is antiquated or that their senpai was overly bossy or pushy. Others are afraid that it is creating generations of citizens who are afraid to stand out from the pack for fear of outshining their senpai and causing them to lose face.
Regardless of how you feel about this system, it has survived many centuries and is so ingrained into Japanese society that it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll experience it at some point during any extended stay within the country.