Often times in America we expect to have what is known as either a vertical or horizontal relationship with other people. In our culture a relationship between boss and employee would be an instance of vertical, while a relationship between classmates would be considered horizontal. In Japanese culture a vertical ranking in human relationships has developed to the extent of having a strong seniority system known as: Sempai and Kohai. This system developed from the strong influences of Historical Confucianism, Japanese traditional family structure, and Civil law.
Sempai roughly means someone who is older or who has superior ability. It can also mean someone who has graduated earlier from the same school. Kohai means roughly later or after. This is a term for people who came to a school or company later, have less experience, or are younger.
In daily Japanese life this ranking can mean a lot, for instance, typically people can not even be seated or talk without first considering the status of others around them. At companies age is also considered more important than ability when determining raises, promotions, or decision making. Even the language reflects this system. When people talk to superiors they use a specific form of Japanese called Keigo. Within Keigo exists three separate forms for separate occasions: sonkeigo, kenjogo, and teineigo. Most Japanese do not start to learn Keigo until High School ages!
How does this play into doing ministry in Japan? First and foremost, this status system combined with group morality makes the spread of Christianity difficult as bullying exists for anyone who “is different” at home, in the work place, or at school. The Sempai may use intimidation that is seen as having to be obeyed lest the Kohai face societal rejection for disrespect. The Kohai can also be forced to perform ceremonies against their beliefs for companies or their family. Secondly, missionaries are typically considered Sempai as teachers, and therefore can have a difficult time determining if Japanese are believing the message of the gospel or fearing the teacher from respect. For this reason missionaries must be careful to discern whether someone is truly believing or dutifully appearing to agree with the Sempai (Missionary) because of the culture. Fortunately in the new generation the Sempai and Kohai system is starting to slowly break down into a less meaningful arrangement. Please pray for us as we seek to return to Japan to minister there!