Have You Ever Wanted to Be Senpai?
One useful way of understanding Japan is through the idea of 型 kata, a word that means shape, mold, pattern (for sewing), model (as in a car), type (as in blood type), or the poses used in martial arts, but in this case refers to social constructs that people “click” into subconsciously. A good example of this is funerals. They happen rarely, so it’s not unreasonable for people to not know how to act at them, where to stand or what to say. This isn’t a problem in Japan, however, where every action taken at a funeral is pre-scripted, with everyone snapping into the social role (kata) prescribed for them. Another example is job interviews, which are very formal affairs that follow pre-scripted patterns. In a recent episode of the New Game anime, Aoba’s friend Nene has an interview with her company as a programmer, and it’s entertaining to watch her try to fit herself into the mold that’s expected of her, wearing a business suit and speaking formal Japanese while she hides every aspect of her personality as completely as possible. We also get a glimpse of Nenecchi’s rirekisho, a form that, to me, sums up the idea of kata even more. Unlike a Western resume or C.V., which allow a lot of freedom of style and design, Japanese rirekisho forms are standardized, with a person’s entire life (school and work history, special awards and qualifications, blood type, hobbies), filled into little boxes.
Later in the episode, Aoba is overjoyed because she’s about to become a senpai with the addition of two new employees. Being a senior in a school or company sounds like fun — you get instant respect, your underlings speaking to you with more polite, formal language (desu and formal verbs ending in masu) while you can relax and speak informally. It can also be complex, as when Aoba frets, “What do I do if they’re older than me?” Back in the old days in Japan, employees joined companies and stayed their entire lives, so a person’s age generally matched their seniority in a company. But those days are gone, and today a 20 year old might well find himself senior to a 30 year old who had changed companies.
Incidentally, my own son had led a somewhat unique life without any senpai of his own. He was in first class at an experimental international immersion school through elementary and junior high (no students above him), and now at university he’s in an engineering program in which all the upperclasmen had already graduated or moved to research labs. As a result, my wife and I worry that he might have trouble when he eventually enters the workforce, potentially lacking the skill of managing relationships with his seniors.
J-List loves Touhou, the series of shooting (“bullet curtain”) games that spawned the greatest engine of subculture in Japan’s recent history. J-List is an official Touhou shop, approved by Zun and Shanghai Alice, and we’ve posted lots of new products from Comiket 92, including new “Fumo” plush toys and the latest official game in the series.