No, senpai is not a great ninja art or a badass attack akin to the Hadouken or Kamehameha. Senpai is a title given to a senior member of an organization or social order. Its most common use is in school among students of different grades, however it extends into the workplace and life as a whole in Japan. There is always someone who has been around longer and therefore has more experience in any given domain. They would be the senpai. Those who are younger or who have less experience are the kohai.
The system of Senpai is surprisingly foreign to my western mind. Everywhere you go there are obviously going to be people at the top and people at the bottom. In really every culture, even among colleagues where we are on fairly equal footing, it is assumed that some will be more or less revered based on a multitude of factors such as position, age, experience, skill etc. I suppose what makes senpai-ship different is the social responsibility that it implies.
Senpai is a loaded term. At its best it implies sort of a big brother (or sister) relationship. When it works correctly it is a beautiful system. The senpai takes responsibility for their kohai. This allows the kohai a certain amount of freedom to screw up and an opportunity to learn. Japan is a perfectionist society in a lot of ways. A single mistake can have dramatic repercussions. The system of senpai allows for the inexperienced newbie to mess up without disaster ensuing. Because they answer first to their senpai, they have someone to consult and even to look out for and train them.
I have a tendency to get kids in trouble. In so many ways I am just an ignorant foreigner in Japan. In my defense, this particular incident happened when I was still fairly new and blissfully unaware of the social laws at play around me.
I am a junior high school English teacher. After school all the students proceed to their respective clubs that they each have chosen. I have about 30 minutes each day before I go home, without much to do. On this particular day I headed to the gym. The girls’ basketball team had the gym for the day, so I decided to join in with their warm-up. Unfortunately, outside of class, I tend to just goof around with the students. I am not much of a teacher, more of an entertaining sibling or uncle. This doesn’t always mesh well with the more serious and disciplined routines of the Japanese regiment. After the girls had stretched, I joined in with their laps around the gym. Being the goofball that I am, I grabbed a basketball and was dribbling it as I went. Amused by this distraction from their normally soldier like approach to basketball practice, they wanted to join in. I passed the ball to one girl, who then laughing passed it to a friend. Soon one of the younger girls added another ball, and two balls were bouncing around to the rhythm of our strides and laughter, as we alternated between circles and figure eights around the gym. I was happy to see them relaxed and enjoying basketball until our fun came suddenly and completely crashing down.
As if on a timer everyone stopped in unison and quickly assumed the 90 degree bowing position. I had no idea what was going on until “ONEGAISHIMASU!!”echoed through the room. Their fearful exclamation of submission was met with a death stare from their basketball coach, and I knew we were all done for.
With surprising efficiency they returned the balls to the bin and formed a perfect circle around the coach. She just looked at them for what felt like an eternity, letting them squirm, before finally asking with icy calm “Who picked up the balls?”
As if by some unspoken code the two team leaders’ hands instantly shot up. The coach dismissed them on the spot. They exchanged a quick glance and then quietly left the gym in shame.
The coach waited with deadly patience, watching them as they left highlighting their embarrassment. She then proceeded to ream the remaining team members. I think they lasted about thirty seconds before every one of them burst into tears.
I stood frozen, shocked. I wanted to come to their rescue, but had no idea how. As soon as the coach came in it was as if I disappeared; Like I wasn’t a part of the picture at all. Not a single person in the room sent even a furtive glance my way. I could think of no course of action that wouldn’t just make the situation worse for all parties involved. After about ten minutes of the coaches verbal onslaught, with scarcely a pause for breath, I left the gym applying my best ninja stealth, though I probably could have tap danced my way out without drawing the least bit of attention.
I felt guilty. I hated that the kids had to take the fall for my ignorance and foolishness. I was afraid that it would negatively affect my relationship with the girls. It was the opposite. There was no trace of blame from the two that had taken the fall. No accusatory looks, no disappointed avoidance. Instead there was almost solidarity. We had endured the wrath of the coach and come out, not unscathed, but we survived it.
Unfortunately the students often take responsibility for my ignorance of Japan’s social norms. But somehow it only brings us closer.
This experience taught me a lot about the concept of senpai. The two older girls, who were senpai here, took the fall even though it was I who was most to blame. The younger girls were the first to be tempted by my incriminating distraction and a younger girl the one to add another ball and compound the criminal action. However, it was the senpai who stepped up without a moment’s hesitation. It was the senpai who took the punishment without the slightest attempt at suggesting it wasn’t their fault.
Senpai with Benefits
Why then would anyone ever want to be a senpai, if they have to take responsibility for their subordinate’s actions? Well a senpai certainly has great power and great responsibility, but senpai-ship has its advantages. The senpai gets to pass on all the undesirable grunt work to the kohai. They also get unquestioning loyalty. It is very rare for a kohai to question a senpai. This makes for a nice balance. The senpai gets to enjoy a lighter work load and doesn’t have to earn the respect of their subordinates, it is simply given. However, they also take responsibly for their subordinates in the event that their training and counsel is insufficient and they allow their subordinates to screw up.
I have realized that there is also a level of heroism that comes with taking the fall. The senpai can endure the punishment, because it was not them who did the crime. And it instils a sense of awe and loyalty from their subordinates.
From the perspective of the kohai, sure they have to do some of the crappy jobs, but who doesn’t when they’re at the bottom of the food chain. It is a small price to pay for getting the instruction and training that their senpai have to offer. They also have to put up with supervisors that are sometimes overbearing or harsh, but they get to rest in the safety of knowing that someone has them under their wing.
The Harsh Reality
The harsh reality is that the system isn’t perfect and it is often abused. As with any system there are those who abuse it and those who are abused by it. Obviously putting someone in such an unquestioning position of power based solely on age, position or seniority can lead to some pretty unsavory characters in positions of power. Because of Japans severely top down distribution of power and authority, the people on the bottom are often powerless and completely subject to their immediate superior. Some senpais abuse their kohai, and this system can be a gateway to hazing, bullying and even sexual harassment. However, this is the exception not the rule.
Another failure of the senpai system is when it is adopted by groups of foreigners living in Japan. Because Japanese culture is so affected by the concept of senpai, it is easy for groups of expats to adopt a bastardized version of it, which fails to grasp the subtlety and complexity of the system. More often than not, you end up with a vicious breed of gaijin senpai on a power trip toward social domination. These senpai reap the benefits of senpai-ship without assuming any of the responsibilities that come with it. They show utter disdain for their subordinates’ lack of cultural assimilation and are quick to throw their inferiority into their faces. They refer to themselves as senpai before their kohai victims even know what the word means and expect them learn their place and fall in line.
My initial reaction to encountering the senpai system was that it seemed old fashioned and I suppose taking respect and obedience for granted somehow offended my American sensibilities. I have really come to appreciate it though, and it makes me reconsider my relationship with my subordinates in any situation. I suppose I am more aware of situations where I am a leader or in power. I can’t say that I really want that position of leadership, but if I find myself there I want to be like a good senpai. I want to look out for my subordinates and take responsibility for their failures, because they are my failures too.