The Sempai

So this is how it is like to have a sempai or a “senior”.

It’s great that there’s somebody older than you and a senior in a specific field always willing to guide you and to show you the ropes, but then you’re always indebted to them even if you personally do not favor their personality. What more if you don’t only have a sempai, but a sensei which translates to “teacher” from Japanese.

In the Philippines, kuya and ate are words we use to address older men and women than us, respectively. In its cultural context, despite the polite term, our association with these people is not exactly as stiff, distant, or formal as the word should mean. Simply, they are nicknames for people who are older than us, but establishing friendly, even intimate relationships with them is not a problem, which is a stark contrast in Japanese culture.

In Japan, anybody who is a level higher to you–whether in school, work, or any group activity–you address them as sempai, or “senior”. Age is not the case in the usage of the term. A younger member of a soccer club could be a sempai to an older member if that younger member has been in the club longer. This also implies that the younger member has a better knowledge of the skill to the older member. That older member would have to speak formally and rely a lot on the younger member’s guidance with club activities and enhancing his/her skills in soccer. On the other hand in the Philippines, we don’t have such strict notion of “seniority”. We learn each others age, get acquainted, forget about the age difference and just work together well as co-members and friends to make things well in the club. However, in Japanese culture, having a sempai also means having a lifetime of gratitude to another person, unless you’ve crossed that road of formality and established comfortable friendship.

As I become more exposed to Japanese culture through reading and media, the more I realize that this sempai-kouhai (junior) relationship is actually quite complicated. I find it painful that some Japanese people could still not be comfortable with each other just because of the sempai-kouhai relationship. Kouhais have to be careful with their language, or even the way they joke around a sempai because it could be that they’re not in a friendship level yet. Nonetheless, I think the benefit of kouhais to sempais is that the latter, acting as the responsible older brother and sister, instantly has a feeling of responsibility to aid their junior whenever they are in need of anything. The gratitude builds up and the kouhai is indebted for life. Not that this is an imposed, strict rule, but it’s implied and understood in a long history of people interrelationship within the culture.

Now, this is the story.

Last year, I studied basic Japanese. Finally, since it is my dream to be fluent in Japanese. So I became an ideal student. I would study during the week that I don’t have class and give it my all during my Saturday classes. Learning Nihonggo was difficult, but I enjoyed it a great deal. I was also very thankful that my sensei or teacher was very understanding and encouraging (although there were times I felt that her praises were bordering on flattery already). We went out for private lunches and meriendas which I enjoyed, although speaking in Japanese only was very challenging. Nonetheless, I was able to practice a lot because I was able to apply what I learned through those private hang outs. I guess what I only found uncomfortable with sensei is that she’s quite the conservative type. I was surprised that she likes to gossip about her students and her boss. There was even a time when a student got offended because her negative reaction to a May-December relationship. She doesn’t like violence, she doesn’t like noisy people, and she gossips and sort of back-bites others. I’m not sure if she’s doing the same about me (hopefully not), but even if I find this side of her disappointing, as my sempai and sensei in learning Nihonggo, I just can’t turn her away.

Do you get the connection now? This is what I mean by being forever indebted with another person. I’m kind because I’m grateful, but not necessarily happy.

Oh my.


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