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UNWRITTEN RULES of the sempai-kohai system

UNWRITTEN RULES of the sempai-kohai system

As a European, when I summarize my day,
I talk about interactions with family, friends and co-workers.
To someone who doesn’t know them,
I just say “A friend of mine” or “My co-worker”.

At first sight Japanese bring home the same stories,
but in Japan the same stories contain a lot more information.
The added information is the social fabric.

What’s your position in the social fabric?
And how about all the other people in the story? 


Imagine telling a story about your grandfather,
do you start with "Someone in my family"?

I doubt it.
You say "Granpa", or "My grandfather from my father's side".
At least the listener immediately realizes the relative positions of you and
grandpa in your family network.

English is oddly precise when discussing distant family
"Fourth cousin thrice removed" isn’t exactly the most useful word in my daily life.
But Japanese has rather precise words for your close family.

Ane, imohto for older and younger sister respectively are
the standard words for “sister”.

You must choose either of these words.
It’s possible to combine them, but then it becomes a collective term.

So, in Japan you always give information about your relative positions.
Same for the male version: ani and otohto.

Sempai / Kohai

Now let's look at other social networks than the family.

In mainland Europe at some companies the concept of "anciennity" exists,
but merely to calculate what amount in benefits you are entitled to.

Japan has a sense of seniority on the work floor,
not for benefits, but as part of the social structure.

Regardless of age, your length of service is collectively remembered
and positions you in the social circle that is the company you work for.
I want to repeat those last words.

In Japan you don't casually work at some company, but you work for a company.

New employees

Mid-size and large corporations in Japan,
recruit graduates every year. Not because they are at a loss how to do the work,
but as a yearly rejuvenation of the company.

It would be un-Japanese to hire only when you're too busy with work.
Hiring is done routinely and preferably in groups.

So, every year in April after the end of the school year,
a small group of new recruits is hired.

They are called shinnyu-shain,
meaning “newly joined employees”.

Then they go through training as a group,
and eventually they'll be allocated to different departments,
where they'll start to adjust to their new life and responsibilities.

After this experience they won't work as closely together any more.
Nevertheless, if you ask 25 years later,
they'll know exactly who entered the same year. They are dohki,
people from the same period.

In many cases, they even have yearly activities together, in their off-time.
To bond, and share their life.

What's more, when confronted with a problem,
and they need some unorthodox approach, and some extra effort from another department,
they can call their buddy, that entered the same year,
their dohki, there is always a little extra goodwill.

Sempai:our seniors

In a similar way, you remember who was there already when you were hired.
Who already added value to the company, when you were still in training.

Those people you treat with a little extra regard, whatever their role in the business.
So even if eventually you're getting well ahead of them career-wise,
still the notion that they were there before you, plays a role.

They are just a little more part of the corporate history than you yourself.
Those are your sempai.

Also, they are the ones who gave up a bit of their time,
and who took a bit of the blame, who went to the extra trouble to get you on track on your career path.
It's something worth remembering.

Kohai: our juniors

Every year longer that you work for the company,
more new recruits enter after you.
Each of them trained as a group each year.

After a few years, you'll be asked to do their training.
You're responsible for their progress. You're going to warn them of the mistakes you made yourself.

You're introducing them to some of your corporate contacts, you'll help them,
check them, report on them, etc.
They are your little brothers, or sisters, in a way.

You're their older brother or sister. Or at least it feels a bit like that.
The word for them is kohai.

If they grow, you're proud.
If you go drinking together you might insist paying the bill yourself,
or the largest part of it.

If they do something foolish, you might do anything from scolding
(yeah really, that still happens in Japan),
teaching, or correcting them, to just some pep talk or general instructions.

Whichever you prefer doesn't matter,
but it almost certainly is more out of this brotherly feeling than out of anger.

Pay it forward

As the kohai can sometimes cause some extra workload,
more stress or undeserved blame-taking on the side of the sempai,
you might wonder if the kohai will need to do something back.

In principle, they give back due respect, and hopefully some loyalty,
they will be good team members, etc.

The relation will never reverse though,
and even after the sempai retires there is no reverse obligation.
Rather, the kohai will pay it forward and be a good sempai to his own kohai.

The system is designed so that every kohai becomes a sempai.

Some exceptions

As Japanese traditions change over time,
at some places the sempai-kohai system isn't functioning all that clearly any more.

In both academia and the de facto military
(officially the Self-Defence Forces, in Japanese: Jieitai),
the official ranks override the sempai or kohai feeling.

Also, in some workplaces where the share of foreign nationals is very high,
there might be not so much left of this system.

The system will never be official though,
no one is asking you to sign up for the duties of a sempai.

It is based on mutual understanding.


Maybe you hold no job in Japan, or you are self-employed.
That doesn't excuse you from the system though.

Sport teams, either amateur or professional,
are notorious for enforcing the sempai-kohai system.

Schools also practice the same idea.
Both the official schools, as well as the more artistic and cultural schools
where you practice topics such as flower arrangement, bonsai tree gardening, music or calligraphy.

It gives you the opportunity to experience different ends of this relation simultaneously.
You might be a sempai at work, but a kohai at your local study group.

Hawaii homeowners

Now that this system is engrained in your habits,
in your vocabulary, you'll discover that figuratively it's even used in completely different situations.

I've heard patients with long-lasting diseases call earlier patients their sempai.

Those relations have no obligations whatsoever,
still the earlier patient ―the sempai- usually has helpful advice,
and a lot of experience that is beneficial for the kohai.

I've even heard the term used for people who buy a house
in a remote place like Hawaii,
the newcomers, or the people who think about moving there,
or buying a second home there,
treat the people who made the same step before them as sempai and vice versa.

Are you now fully familiar with the Japanese terms below?

Are you now fully familiar with the Japanese terms below?
If not, go back and read again :)

・Sempai せんぱい 先輩

・Kohai こうはい 後輩

・Dohki どうき 同期

・Shinnyu-shain しんにゅう しゃいん 新入社員

・Imohto いもうと 妹

・Otohto おとうと 弟

・Ane あね 姉

・Ani あに 兄

・Jieitai じえいたい 自衛隊

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This article was written by Otto van Wijngaarden / CALN instructor

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