Learning hard lessons in inferiority

by Thomas Dillon

The man towers over my life like Atlas holding up an entire Earth’s worth of responsibility.

He checks my work. He checks my fashion and manners. He then not too tactfully gushes advice on my family and my future. This river of admonition flows every day, and my only defense is to bow in his presence and agree. But — when free from his sniper vision — I ignore every single word he says.

This man is not my father, or an older brother, or my boss, or even an in-law with money. No, no, ours is a delicate relationship beyond all bonds of blood and employment.

The man is (drum roll) . . . my “sempai.”

“Dillon-san,” he speaks with a morning grin, “any problems? Let me check your work.”

“No problems,” I tell him, but as a sempai he has selective hearing.

The Japanese term “sempai” cannot be easily explained, for the word does not exist in isolation. Just like heaven needs hell, “sempai” has no meaning unless paired with its complement, “kohai.” The relationship is best defined as that of a hierarchical pecking order, a la “older vs. younger” or “senior vs. junior.” Yet, I like the way one of my former students described it best.

“My kohai are . . .” The boy paused, then smiled as he found his word. “. . . my inferiors.”

I did not smile back. Not that I cared so much that he goofed the expression. It was just that he said it in such a “superior” way.

For something about Japan’s sempai/kohai hierarchy — in which the sempai molds and instructs the kohai — rubs wrong against my “gaijin” grain.

Maybe this is due to a Western upbringing that promotes solo performances over group orchestration. Or maybe it comes from some inner snobbishness that says cream should rise no matter when the rest of the can was milked.

“Or maybe,” says my wife, playing on the word of the day, “you’re just too proud to be ‘inferior.’ “

I might tell her to shut up, but I cannot. She is my life sempai. Besides, she has a point. I am not a happy kohai.

What is cozy about the sempai/kohai bond is that it is not a one-way street. The kohai should always look up to and respect the sempai, even if the sempai has the social skills of a ripe pimple. The sempai should always look out for and teach the kohai, even if the kohai plays a razor blade to the sempai’s butter knife.

Such positions never change, but typically everyone takes both roles at once. For the ladder of life runs up and down. No one is strictly a sempai or a kohai. They wear two suits simultaneously.

Unless, I argue, you’re a foreigner. Then you are the perennial kohai, the perennial guest, the perennial “inferior.”

“See,” pokes my wife. “You can’t take it. Admit it now. You need work at being ‘inferior.’ “

“But it’s true!” I tell her. “As a foreign resident, I am always the guest, the newbie, the fresh bud. That may be nice at times, but it grows old. Who wants to be a fledgling kohai forever?”

Which brings me back to my sempai, a nondescript salaryman at one of the many places I work. We have similar job titles and report to the same supervisor, but my friend is older and has been employed many years longer.

So he nudges into my job, investments, diet, health, child rearing and more. He even instructs me not to walk from the station but to take the bus.

“Think of your heart,” he says.

“I AM thinking of my heart,” I almost yell. “After all, it’s MY heart.”

He senses my tension and whispers:

“Plus when people sweat, they have an odor.”

His “help” does not stop there.

If I say I am arranging a party, he will suggest a location, and then promote that spot no matter how often I decline.

If I mention I’m taking a trip, he will present travel pamphlets and explain where I should visit and what I should see, as if I hadn’t planned my own vacation.

And if we eat out together, he will not let me pay. Ever. In the end I save a little money, but swallow a lot of guilt.

“The man,” my wife lectures, “is only being kind. He is thinking of your well-being. Sempai come in all varieties, and this one is quite nice. You should be grateful.”

“The man,” I smile, “is driving me nuts.”

As my ultimate sempai, she cannot keep from providing a solution. “If it galls you, simply return the favors to those of a lower rank. Be a good sempai to your own juniors. In other words, pass it on.”

“That is the problem. As a foreigner, there is no one below. I am the king of kohais.”

Then, she says, I should practice being a good sempai to my fellow foreigners.

Yet most foreigners breeze in and out too fast to ever get a handle on the sempai/kohai system. And those who stay often don’t like it any better than I do.

I remember telling a younger American colleague that her sitting on her desk was annoying our Japanese coworkers. “Don’t do it anymore,” I advised.

“Drop dead,” she advised back.

“So,” I tell my wife, “what you suggest is a lot easier said than done.”

“Then I guess you have to get used to being ‘inferior.’ You can start,” she suggests, “by washing the dishes.”

Fortunately my work sempai has drilled me at length on how to handle such situations. So I call upon my only true kohai in all Japan, my son.

“Hey,” I tell him. “Come here. I’ve got something I’d like to pass your way.”