By Ririka Takahashi

Have you ever experienced a seniority system where the social position of a person is determined by their age? The Senpai and Kohai custom is probably something unfamiliar to international students coming to Japan. In Japan, the seniority system of senpai (先輩) and kohai (後輩) applies in many relationships, ranging from those in schools, businesses as well as sports clubs. The University of Tokyo is no exception. Even if you are an international student, because this culture is still taken very seriously in modern-day Japan it is important to be informed.

A hierarchical structure exists even within students who are only a couple years apart.  Image by Fisserman | flickr.

A hierarchical structure exists even within students who are only a couple years apart.
Image by Fisserman | flickr.

Directly translated, senpai is defined as “one’s upperclass student,” while kohai is defined as “one’s underclass student.” The relationship of senpai and kohai is a fundamental element in the seniority-based social relationships in Japan where relationships are mainly determined by age. The senpai are responsible for mentoring the kohai, while the kohai are obligated to listen to and follow the senpai. Unless a kohai is on very good terms with the senpai, they usually use keigo (敬語), the special style of Japanese that shows respect towards another.

In many universities in Japan including the University of Tokyo, the senpai-kohai relationship is respected especially in the clubs and circles. Even though it is more common in sport clubs, it exists in other clubs and circles as well. Theatre and chorus are some examples of circles with strict rules. The stricter senpai-kohai relationships have the tendency to occur in clubs and circles that function mainly through teamwork.

Recently, this unique senpai-kohai custom has been creating some controversy amongst students in Japan. Some people oppose the seniority system. This is due to the extreme behavior of some senpai who treat the kohai not as their underclass student, but instead somewhat as “slaves.” This can be seen from a famous expression that is used to describe the sport clubs of universities: “A god in the fourth year, a nobleman in the third year, a commoner in the second year, and a slave in the first year.” This expression indicates that the older one gets, the more superior one becomes.

There are reasons for the continued existence of this incomprehensible hierarchical system. First, people believe that this system teaches students to respect one’s seniors. By keeping a strict system, it prevents the kohai from being impolite. It informs the senpai the happiness and difficulty of teaching the kohai. It also gives them the feeling of honor and responsibility to be a senpai. At the same time, it teaches the kohai the importance of learning. It also is aimed to make the kohai mentally stronger by being strict. In reality, age does not indicate skill and experience. People can learn manners even without this system. Nevertheless, this diminutive seniority system has been passed on from the past as a peculiar Japanese tradition. Although there is some controversy over this system, this culture may be worth preserving as a Japanese tradition, as long as the members of the clubs and circles agree to the arrangements.

From the perspective of an international student, it may be strange to see such hierarchies existing within student groups. Nonetheless, when you are in Japan, it is recommended to respect this traditional Japanese custom whether you adopt it or not.

Ririka Takahashi is a first-year PEAK student at the University of Tokyo.




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