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Sempai and Kouhai

Here is another quick Japanese culture lesson for you. If you know someone who grew up in the country, ask his him who his sempai and kouhai are. Almost without question, he will have an answer.

[sem-PIE] and [co-HIGH]

Japan is, people like to say, a country of obedience and community, without the independence of the West. One of the clearest examples of this, and one of best ways this structure is passed on is through this mentor-like system. While it might refer to seniority in a business or some organization, most usually every person grew up under the tutelage of someone just older, his sempai [sem-PIE]. It is the responsibility of the sempai to guide and advise his younger half, his kouhai [co-HIGH], the best he can. In return, it is generally understood that the kouhai must respect and follow his sempai. Just a few days ago I went out to a bar with a group of Japanese college students I had befriended. While, I believe, it more common to find a group of American friends all similarly aged, the sempai/kouhai dynamic changes things.

I was there, drinking Suntory and eating tonkatsu and fried potatoes with the group’s grand sempai, a 33-year-old, whose kouhai was 26-years-old, who was sempai to a 25-year-old, who was sempai to a 23-year-old, who was sempai to a 22-year-old, who was sempai to a 21-year-old, who was sempai to a 15-year-old. If they got into arguments, the sempai would always make the peace, and there was a genuine respect for one’s sempai. Granted, normal social skills skew the presence. The 22-year-old was clearly the most popular, most athletic and most out-going of the group, but he knew his place and didn’t question it. It is this, the sempai and kouhai system that might be one of the clearest ways to describe how much of Japanese society is structured and remains. It is surprisingly refreshing to find such a tradition still so active.

Jaa ne,

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