Friday, April 29, 2011

Bow to your Sempai

During the first week of introductory Japanese classes, while the regular university students were sitting through hours of orientation, we were sitting through hours of lectures devoted to instilling in us one important idea: our place in the great hierarchy…

…The bottom.

Though the importance of status is well known, an outsider in the country may not notice the subtle shades of rank and file within the Japanese society. Once in a school or company, however, it becomes easier to observe who holds rank and who kisses ass. Our Japanese teacher—a term I use loosely here—found it extremely important that we understand how to act toward the other students at the Budo Daigaku. The degree to which you bow, the language you use, and the duties you perform are all dependent upon your relative rank. This system is known as the taiikukei [体育系] system; a word derived from the kanji for body and growth. The term, usually associated with the sports and military, has also been used to describe the manifestations of rank at an office or school.
Though there may be many levels by which people are divided, there are two important terms. Sempai [先輩] are those people who rank above you while kouhai [後輩] are those people who rank below you.

Within the Budo Daigaku, rank is determined in this order:
Your year (first year students-fourth year students),
Your rank within the martial art (shoudan, nidon…),
Your age.

So if you decided to take a few years off before starting college, prepare to have children treat you like you were… a child.

The bekkasei students, however, fall into a unique category. We are not officially first year students, yet we are older than many of the fourth year students. Since your year comes first in determining your status, we hold the very bottom rung of the social latter. Our Japanese teacher insisted upon this during three or four days of class, repeatedly forcing us to have pretend conversations with pretend people who pretended to be above us. “You are below even the first year students, everyone is above you! So you must learn how to speak very politely. Never say “Ohayou” [Good Morning]… you must always say “Ohayou Gozaimasu” [Good Morning… while bent double] and never say “たまきんに蹴るよ” [I’m going to kick you in the balls] always say “すみません、 金的に蹴りたいと思っています” [excuse me, I am thinking about kicking you in the testicles].”

I decided to put my newly acquired knowledge to the test. So, during morning practices, I bowed to the third-year student with whom I was running and called him sempai. He stopped and very quickly exclaimed, “I’m not your sempai!”

You see, one of the major problems is that the very same Japanese students do not know how to think of us. We are not Japanese, we are not students and we are older. This is partly the cause for our difficulties in finding acceptance. We do not fit into the machine!

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