A post from a friend and fellow Niimi ALT

Hello Sidney. My name is Andrew Scales. I’m a fourth year JET originally from St. Catharines, Ontario; not too far from Terry’s picturesque hometown of Hamilton. Terry has asked me to guest write a few blog posts and I’m more than happy to oblige. To be completely honest with you I’ve never actually written a blog, nor do I really read them. I’m not quite sure how much weight my opinions hold so forgive me while I test the waters. It’s been a few years since I’ve written anything of value for native English speakers so I apologize if the prose is lacking. While I may not be able to give you flowery descriptions of Japanese society I can, quite proficiently, tell you that “I like dogs.” Anyway, on with the show.

I thought as my first post I’d talk about the reason I’ve found myself assisting Terry in not only daily life, but this blog as well: a very Japanese mentor system known as the senpai-kohai relationship. I guess the easiest way to translate the phrase (read: Wikipedia definition) would be a senior-junior system of assistance. Right away I need to clarify that this has nothing to do with age. Being generous, Terry was witness to the rise and fall of empires before I was born. In terms of life experiences as a whole, Terry is clearly my senpai; the wise old sage he is. In turn I am the kohai; the junior, milk still wet on my lip. While Japan certainly has a reverence for it’s elders, age isn’t really the focus of the senpai-kohai relationship. Senpai-kohai relations develop through two individuals that work in the same company, are part of the same club, and even belong to the same social circle. It’s an unwritten and mostly assumed social contract in which the individual with more experience, such as joining a company or club at an earlier date, becomes the senpai and acts as a guide for individual with less experience; the kohai. The kohai, in return, respects the senpai for their guidance. As you can probably see, even though age isn’t strictly the focus of the relationship, more often than not the senpai is the literal elder of the two.

I’m not trying to imply that there’s no comparable system of mentors and proteges in Western society (thanks again Wikipedia!) but the level to which it seems to permeate society here is unlike anything I’ve seen at home. Regardless of the social or societal situation, those in Japan with more experience seem to instinctively assist those with less while those with less instinctively respect and appreciate the help of their mentors. It’s a relationship that develops naturally and can last a lifetime. Japanese people will refer to their senpais and kohais by those same titles long after the relationship has ended. It’s also not a mutuality exclusive concept. A kohai will become someones senpai with enough experience and vice versa when someone enters into a new situation in which they lack experience. To make it even more complex all of this isn’t to say that it’s an oppressive or rigid system. Nobody is trying to cement a legacy or bring out the whip to demand perfection. It’s simply a benign system of paying-it-forward that exists for the greater good of society. No matter which social situation you find yourself in, all over Japan you can seen the effects of the relationship at work. All of this of course exists within the framework of the larger Japanese concept of social harmony but that’s a story for another day and one I can’t quite put my finger on. I don’t think any foreigner can.

So here I am. Writing a blog post for Terry. An idea that came out of helping him with a presentation on Vancouver Island. Assistance that came out of helping my new kohai at work. Just as Terry’s predecessor aided me when I arrived in Japan I’m aiding him. At the end of the day you can call it being a good person, or Canadian for short; however, I think somewhere, deep down inside, all my time in Japan has guided my actions just a little. It happened to me. It’ll happen to almost everyone that spends any significant portion of time here.

When in Rome…

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