What Does Senpai Really Mean? My Experiences Working in Japan, and Some Thoughts on Why People in Japan Work so Much Overtime

Japan’s “craftsman spirit” is something that I would eventually come to really appreciate the more I lived in Japan, and I would also come to see how it is the root of so many of Japan’s modern issues.

So…what does senpai really mean in Japanese?

A brand new slave obtained, all because of a 1 day difference?! “Wow, lucky!”

I’m sure you know the Japanese word “senpai” (先輩) because of the countless”notice me senpai” meme’s, but did you know there’s something called a kohai (後輩) too? So, what is a senpai, and what is a kohai? Well, it depends on who’s talking…literally! Both the words senpai and kohai are relationship qualifiers in Japanese, meaning they define a role somebody has in relation to you. A senpai is your superior. Somebody who has more experience than you, and somebody who is likely older than you as well. (Almost always someone who is older than you, but things can get more complicated when grade years and job titles get involved.) In all honesty though, I have seen many situations in Japan where somebody just 1 day older than somebody else got treated as their senpai. It can be…a little extreme…

There’s also this thing called a kohai. So…what’s that?

A kohai can be thought of as your subordinate…sort of? I say this because this isn’t true in every case. The key with most Japanese relationship qualifiers is that they define your relationship in relative terms when compared to the society around you, but not necessarily in terms of power. The focus is more on establishing the proper dynamic of when to use polite Japanese or keigo, and in establishing the overall social dynamic of the group in general, with less focus placed on power dynamics. There is a power dynamic tied to the senpai / kohai relationship(I will cover this more later), however, this is ideally an indirect result of the respect the kohai has for the senpai. Maybe this is confusing…?

Once a kohai, always a kohai!

How you are expected to treat you senpai, and how this works in Japanese culture

Okay, think about it like this. If you do something nice for your girlfriend, she would probably prefer it if you did something nice for her… because you you like her, and not just because boyfriends are supposed to do nice things for their girlfriends. This is sort of how the senpai-kohai relationship in Japan is meant to play out ideally, but things don’t always proceed according to this ideal. Things can get really murky with such an ever-present expectation for the kohai to show their respect for their senpai. This…has the potential to lead to a lot of problems, where the rights and laws concerning modern workers can sometimes clash with the traditional culture of…let’s be honest, kissing your senpai’s butt.

Hey, it’s not just butt-kissing. It’s strategically calculated! I’m butt-kissing, but with intent!!!

Okay, okay. By the way, the word for “butt kissing” in Japanese is Gomasuri, which is literally the act of crushing sesame seeds into a fine powder with a Japanese mortar and pestle. Gomasuri is both a verb and noun. If you want to gomasuri some delicious sesame seeds, and not your boss, you should try heading to one of Japan’s nicer tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurants.

Anyways… this calculated gomasuri is supposed to be voluntary, but just as with many things in Japan society, voluntary customs have a tendency of slowly but surely becoming unspoken rules in due time. What kind of unspoken rules, you ask? Let’s dive in.

The senpai / kohai relationship, and why there is so much overtime work in Japan

I pride myself in my subtle requests.

Let’s start with probably the biggest unspoken rule for kohai in Japan: You don’t say no to your senpai. And more often than not, especially in a workplace setting, you don’t say no can quickly turn into a situation where you can’t say no. Of course, this dynamic isn’t entirely unique to Japan, but the entire societal implications and structure surrounding this dynamic are…pretty unique, and pretty distinct. In Japan, being a senpai to somebody (or a kohai) isn’t only exclusive to being older than another person (although this is a huge component of it), the senpai and kohai relationship is dependent on one’s exact amount of experiences they have unique to each aspect of their life. Still, the balance of seniority in groups and how this seniority is played out is dependent on often extremely minute details and levels of seniority.

What senpai really means in Japanese, how it’s different from jyoshi, and why this balance can be confusing.

Here’s a somewhat extreme example: If somebody has worked at a job for even 1 month more than you, there is an expectation to uphold respect for them as a senpai to you (the kohai.) In Japan what we would normally label as the relationship of the superior and subordinate would actually be translated as jyoshi or the “superior” and bukka “subordinate, with the key point here being that the concept of senpai can be entirely separated from the concept of jyoshi. Somebody who is working in the same position as you but has been there just a tiny bit longer would not be considered your jyoshi, but they would be considered your senpai. This dynamic can get really muddy, because Japanese has this tricky thing called keigo, also known as honorific speech, meaning the grammar and vocabulary you use is entirely different depending on where you fall within this balance. Furthermore, whether or not you are expected to use honorific speech (and whether or not you are allowed to openly question your senpai’s decisions) is a dynamic that is decided by the senpai.

In short, most people being put in this situation will acknowledge that it’s a little fair to expect respect from somebody for a few weeks seniority, but…not everybody will. This is where problems can often arise, because where this line stands and the exact expectations of both parties can become…vague, to say the least.

Why Japanese employees work so much overtime: Gaman, priorities in the Japanese workplace, and some of my experiences.

One thing I definitely noticed while working at a Japanese company was the constant emphasis placed on gaman, which is often translated into English as “perseverance.” In fact, the concept of gaman is something you really can’t escape in any aspect of life in Japan. If you live in Japan, you will encounter this obsession with gaman. So…gaman means “perseverance”? Yes, but there is a distinct emphasis placed on overcoming discomfort for the sake of those around you, and the greater society as a whole that can be seen permeating every crevice of Japanese society. It really can be seen everywhere.

Too cold in the winter? Wait! Don’t turn on the AC! That’s a waste of electricity! Just gaman instead. Just break up with your girlfriend and feeling overwhelmed? Gaman! You wouldn’t want to take out your feelings on those around you. And, in the case of the Japanese workplace, and often strictly enforced by your very own senpai, just worked your 8 hour shift but have a bit of extra work? Well, gaman! Everyone’s watching…especially that senpai. Senpai notices…senpai always notices… Generally speaking, the higher up on the totem pole you are, the less you are expected to gaman. But, for many reasons, new employees often go through this hazing period where they are expected to prove their loyalty and undying love for their new place of employment, and their will to passionately gaman for the greater good, the good of their company, and the good of glorious Japan itself. In fact, there is a Japanese phrase that fresh university graduates hear ALL of the time that reinforces this ideal.

New employees and fresh university graduates hear this phrase ALL of the time.

One of the things you will realize when studying a language rooted in such a different cultural base than English, is that the frequency of how often words and phrases are used so often dictates the kinds of conversations people usually have. There is a sort of indirect influence placed on people’s cognitive bias that I find really interesting. In fact, I wrote about this idea of how language influences the way we think here. When looking at Japan’s propensity for long work hours, strict senpai-kohai relationships, and idealism placed on long service to a company, no phrase solidifies this ideal more into the minds of the Japanese society than ishi no ue ni mo sannen (石の上にも三年), which is often translated into English as “It takes three years to warm the stone upon which you sit.” Basically, patience is a virtue.

If you’re going to gaman, you’d better gaman for 3 whole years!

However, there is an important caveat to be observed here. In fact, if we directly translate this phrase, it would be something close to “First, 3 years upon the stone.”, which is an ancient Confucian principle that will have huge ramifications for the Japanese working culture. Because of the existence of this proverb, a very common phrase is often used as a rebuttal for any grievance or complaint fresh employees may have at their first job: Toriaezu sannen, which basically means “Before you do anything else, persevere (gaman) through this job at any cost for 3 years.” This is such an obvious idea for the average Japanese person, that most people would probably be surprised to find out that an equivalent phrase doesn’t exist in English. Maybe you’re being sexually harrased, or being forced to work excessive overtime hours? “Shhhh…toriaezu sannen.” First, you have to put in those three years, silly! This isn’t an isolated incident, as Japanese society is chock-full of these kind of unspoken ideals. Another pretty infamous one of this concept of not wanting to be labeled an “expired Christmas cake.”

…Wait…what? Cake?….They celebrate Christmas in Japan?

Yes and yes. Christmas cake is a thing here too. An expired…Christmas cake? Well, historically a woman in Japan was expected to be married by the age of 25, lest they become an expired Christmas cake past their prime (because Christmas is on the 25th, if you didn’t catch that.) Really, you better hurry up! You wouldn’t want to become a stale and very crusty…cake? Now, would you? GET ON IT!

Jokes and strange example aside, I do believe that this ideal for working at every job on resume for at least 3 years has had a MASSIVE effect on the effectiveness of workers rights initiatives in Japan. After all, it’s a lot easier to get somebody wrapped around your finger when they feel like their career will be irreparably damaged if they leave before 3 years. This, along with the power of the senpai- kohai relationship of just a few of the reasons why the power dynamic can be so suffocating for new workers in Japan.

“Can be”, is the key phrase, because I have plenty of friends who are gainfully and happily employed at Japanese companies, have great relationships with their senpai, and have manageable levels of overtime work hours.

So… how was my experience working in a Japanese company? Did I experience any of the above?

I did, but I do want to stress that this kind of hazing usually only comes from 1 or 2 bad apples (in my case, 5 of the people I worked with were great, and 2 of them were…not so great.) That’s why I decided to work for myself. Based on what I hear from my friends, and even my coworkers in the same company, it seems like I mostly had bad luck. That being said, it’s hardly an isolated incident in Japan, and while I didn’t have a great experience working at a company here in Japan, I do really admire some things about the Japanese work culture and craftsman spirit, or shokunin kishitsu (職人気質).

Japan’s craftsman culture, and how it affects the lifestyle of people in Japan

Shokunin kishitsu (職人気質) or the craftsman spirit is another one of these everyday ideals of the Japanese lifestyle, and one that I personally like. I’ve actually noticed some of these ideals becoming more mainstream in Western media of recent years, where “the grind” has become synonymous with entrepreneurial pursuits and success. If you’re at all interested in Japan, you’ve probably heard of “Ikigai”, which is a Japanese concept that is often translated as “One’s reason for being.” Essentially, an Ikigai is the balance of your life, and your reason for waking up in the morning. Japan’s craftsman spirit is centered around this concept of ikigai, where one’s purpose is to hone their craft, and one’s craft is often very minimalist in nature. The Japanese sushi kishitsu will be to spend 50 years perfecting the art of preparing the perfect tuna nigiri sushi. There are no frills. There are no special sauces. You have vinegar rice and tuna, and you need to prepare the most authentically pure and perfect piece of sushi you can. This is the Japanese craftsman spirit. Simple. Minimalist. And most importantly, it is centered around the constant pursuit of the intrinsic value of perfection. The craftsman in Japan does not strive for perfection for monetary gain. The craftsman in Japan obtains monetary gain through the pursuit of intrinsic perfection, regardless of reward.

This is an ideal that I really like, and is something I am constantly striving for in my business and personal life. This ideal is also often exploited, which can be seen across the society. A society where a man is respected for working diligently without monetary gain or due rest is clearly not a society that will place great emphasis on workers rights. But, for when it does work, and when you do find that perfect working environment within Japan, it is somewhat of a feeling of liberation. To be expected to create great things, for the sake of creating great things. This is an ideal that I can definitely get behind.

If you are interested in dabbling in Japanese language learning, and are curious how I did it, why not check out the article below?

Or, why not check out one of the related articles below?

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