The importance of rank in Japan and in Japanese education

This page examines the pervasiveness of rank and ranking in Japanese education and its implications upon Japanese society. For this purpose, we draw upon excerpts from the book “Japanese Society”  by Nakane Chie who has written one of the clearest and insightful treatises dissecting the structure and web of relations and the principles governing the formation of group in Japanese society.

The first section looks at the importance of rank in Japanese society, the second, ranking at work in the  Japanese education system.

The importance of rank in Japanese society

“In [Japanese] society a functional group consists always of heterogeneous elements, and the principle by which these elements are linked is always dominated by the vertical order. … The vertical relation … in Japan becomes the actuating principle in creating cohesion among group members. Because of the overwhelming ascendancy of this vertical orientation, even a set of individuals sharing identical qualifactions tends to create a difference among these individuals. As this is reinforced, an amazing delicate and intricate system of ranking takes shape.

There are numerous examples of this ranking process … Among lathe operators with the same qualifications there exist differences of rank based on relative age, year of entry into the company or length of continuous service, among professors at the same college, rank can be assessed by the formal date of appointment …

For the Japanese the established ranking order (based on duration of service within the same group and on age, rather than on individual ability) is overwhelmingly important in fixing the social order and measuring individual social values.

A Japanese finds his world clearly divided into three categories, sempai) seniors), kohai (juniors) and doryo. Doryo, meaning one’s ‘colleagues’, refers only those with the same rank, not to all who do the same type of work in the same office or on the same shop floor; even among doryo, differences in age, year of entry or of graduation from school or college contribute to a sense of sempai  and kohai. These categories are subsumed under the single term ‘colleagues’ in other societies.

This categorization is demonstrated in the three methods of addressing a second or third person … San is used for sempai, kun for kohai and the name without suffix is reserved for doryo. … In the case of professionals, within this pattern, a sempai is addressed as sensei instead of san, sensei being the higher honorific term, used of teachers by their students, and also of professionals by the general public.

It is important to note that this usage of terms of address once deternmined by relationships in the earlier stages of a man’s life or career, remains unchanged for the rest of his life. …

It is the general tendency to indicate one’s relatively higher status; this practice derives from the fact that the ranking order is perceived as ego-centred. Once established, vertical rankings functions as the charter of the sociela order, so that whatever the change in an individual’s status, popularity or fame, there is a deeply ingrained reluctance to ignore or change the established order.

The relative rankings are thus centred on ego and everyone is placed in a relative locus within the firmly established vertical sytem. Such a system works against the formation of distinct strata within a group, which even if consists of homogeneous members in terms of qualification, tends to be organized according to hierarchical order. In this kind of society ranking becomes far more important than any differences in the nature of the work, or of status group. Even among those with the same training, qualifications or status, differences of rank are always perceptible, because the individuals concerned are deeply aware of the such distinctions, these tend to overshadow and obscure even differences of occupation, status or class. …

In Japan once rank is established on the basis of seniority, it is applied to all circumstances, and to a great extent controls social life and individual activity. Seniority and merit are the principal criteria for the establishment of a social order; every society employs these criteria, although the weight given to each may differ according to social circumstances. In the west merit is given considerable importance, while in Japan the balance goes the other way. In other words, in Japan, in contrast to other societies, the provisions for recognition of merit are weak, and institutionalization of the social order has been effected largely by means of seniority; this  is the more obvious criterion, assuming an equal ability in individuals entering the same kind of service. …this rigidity and stability that are produced by ranking that the latter functions as the principal controlling factor of social relations in Japan. The basic orientation of social order permeates every aspect of society, far beyond the limits of the instuttionalized group. This ranking order, in effect, regulates Japanese life.

In everyday affairs a man who has no awareness of relative rank is not able to speak or even sit and eat. When speaking, he is expected always to be ready with differentiated, delicate degrees of honorific expressions appropriate to the rank order between himself and the person he addresses.”

Ranking at work in Japanese education

“It is often agreed that, in these ‘modern’ days, the younger generation tends to infringe the rules of order. But it is interesting to note that young people soon begin to follow the traditional order once they are employed, as they gradually realize the social cost that such infringement involves. The young Japanese, more over, is never free of the seniority system. In schools there is a very distinct senior-junior ranking among students, which is observed particularly strictly among those who form sports clubs. In a student mountaineering club, for example, it is the students of a junior class who carry a heavier load while climbing, pitch the tent and prepare the evening meal under the surveillance of the senior students, who may sit smoking. When the preparations are over, it is the senior students who take the meal first, served by the junior students. This strong rank consciousness, it is said, clearly reflects the practices of the former Japanese army. …

In such manners we can observe how deep the ranking consciousness operates among Japanese. … Japanese scholars … never escape from the consciousness of the distinction between sempai and kohai, even in the case of purely academic debates. It is very difficult for a Japanese scholar to disagree openly iwht a statement of his sempai. Even a trifling oppsoition to or disagreement with the sempai’s involves an elaborate and roundabout drill. First the objector should introduce a long appraisal of the part of the sempai’s work in question, using extremely honorific terms,and then gradually present his own opinion or in a style which will give the impression that his opposition is insignificant, being afraid to hurt his sempai‘s feelings. The ranking of sempai and kohai thus stifles the free expression of individual thought.

The consciousness of rank which leads the Japanese to ignore logical procedure is also manifested in patterns and practices of daily conversation, in which a senior  or an elderly man monopolizes the talk while those junior to them have the role of listener. Generally there is no development of dialectic style in a Japanese conversation, which is guided from beginning to end by the interpersonal relations wich exist between the speakers. In most cases a conversation is either a one-sided sermon, the ‘I agree completely’ style of communication, which does not allow for the statement of opposite views; or parties to a conversation follow parallel lines, winding in circles and ending exactly where they stated. Much of a conversation is taken up by long descriptive accounts, the narration of personal experiences or the statement of an attittude towards a person or an event in definitive and subjective terms unlikely to invite, or to reach, a compromise. … Because of the lack of a discipline for relationships between equals, the Japanese do not practise these three basic steps of reasoning and must overcome great odds in order to advance or cultivate any issue brought under discussion. Hence most conversations are intellectually dull, emotionally enjoyable to the speaker, with a higher status, rather than the listener, with a lower status. Too seldom is the speaker a good entertainer who can lead his listeners to join a worthwhile game.]In particular, a junior takes every care to avoid any open confrontation with his superior. Such attempts lead to the point that a flatly negative form is rarely employed in conversation: one would prefer to be silent rather than utter words such as ‘no’ or ‘I disagree’. The avoidance of such open and bald negative expression is rooted in the fear that it mgiht disrupt the harmony and order of the group, that it might hurt the feelings of a superrior and that, in extreme circumstances, it could involve the risk of being cast out from the group as an undesirable member. Even if there are others who share a negative opinion it is unlikely that they will join together and openly express it, for the fear that this might jeopardize their position as desirable group members. Indeed, it often happees that, once a man has been labelled as one whose opinions run contrary to those of the group, he will find himself opposed on any issue and ruled out by majority opinion. No one will defend him in any circumstance.

Thus the expression of opinion in a group in Japan is very much influenced by the nature of the group and a man’s place in it. At a group meeting a member should put forward an opinion in terms that are safe and advantageous to himself rather than state a judgement in objective terms appropriate at issue. This is why a junior member will rarely dare to speak up in the presence of his superior. Freedom to speak up in the presence of his superior. Freedom to speak out in a group is determined by, as it were, the processes of human relations within the group; in other words, it goes according to status in the group organization.” …

“… there is in Japan no notable horizontal group consciousness within such groups as executives, clerks, manual workers and so on, there is instead a strong departmentalism constructed along the functional vertical tie. It may group together a section head and his subordinates; in a university department, for example, the professor, assistant professor, lecturer, assistant and students are linked together in a vertical relationship. The professor is closer to his lecturer and assistant (who are most probably his former students) and to his students than he is to any of his fellow professors.

There are many consequences of such vertical organization. Frequently, for example, it is not the man who is most obviously capable but rather a more pliable person who is elected as the chairman or the head of any collective body. The claims of the more capable man are often passed over because of the fear among other members that he might work for the advantage of his own group, whihc, in fact, given circumstances normally prevailing in Japan, he is quite likely to do.” …

“This kind of orientation in human relations in Japan contrasts sharply with that of other societies. In Amerca and again in sharply with that of other societies. In America and again in England, for example, teaching staff in a university or executives in a firm form a more functional group based on ‘colleague’  identification. Minor differences of individual rank tend to be ignored; in place of rank, there are sharply defined groups – assistants or students against professors, clerks or workers against executives, for example.” …

“Although a year-group, or a set of class-mates of a school are recognized in Japan, such groups are the outcome of the ranking system itself. in other words, such group consciousness exists because of the ranking system and is not that of a horizontal group created primarily for the enjoyment of comradeship. Rather, it demarcates clear lines of rank within the picture of the total group or institution.  … In normal circumstances little can be expected from an introduction given to a classmate of similar rank unless there is some particularly close friendship  or some common and important interest involved. on the other hand, a letter of introduction from a distinguished senior man to his subordinate is very effective. It will ensure proper, even unreasonaby generous, treatment, quite irrespective of the subordinate’s views of the bearer of the introduction and of the latter’s status. The vertical line is much more effective than the horizontal line.”

Ranking, vertical hierarchical relationships and competition

“…The construction of social groups based on vertical organization stresses the unitary aspect and brins about numerous vertical schisms within the society. Even if social classes like those in Europe can be detected in Jpaan, and even if something vaguely like those classes … can also be found in Jpaan, the point is that in actual soceity this stratificationis unlikely to function and that it does not really reflect the social structure. In jpaanese society it is really not a matter of workers struggling agsiainst capitalists or managers but o Company A ranged agaisnt Company B. …

Because competition takes place between parallel groups of the same kind, the enemy is alway to be found amogn those in the same category. (In other societies such groups could be linked by co-operative ties which would represent totally opposite kind of strength in relations.) To illustrate this, competition arises among the various steel companies, or among import-export firms. Among schools it is just the same; university against university, high school against high school. …

If this competition is expressed very pragmatically the prize in the race is the rating. A common Japanese reaction may well take the form, ‘Their rating is higher than our, so …’ “…

The centrality of oyabun-kobun relationship

“…the group is based on the accumulation of relationships between two individuals. The relationship between two individuals of upper and lower status is the basis of the structural princicple of Jpaanese society. This important relationship is expressed in the traditional terms oyabun and kobun. Oyabun means the person with the status of oya (parents) and kobun means with the status of ko (child). .. One person may play more than one role. … Oyabun may be one in a senior position at a man’s place of work, with whom has grown a close personal relationship over the years. The essential elements in the relationship are that the kobun receives benefits or help from his oyabun, such as assistance in securing employment or promotion and advice on the occasion of important decision-making whenever. The kobun, in turn is ready to offer his services whenever the oyabun requires them.”  …

“According ot the principal of a juvenile detention home, the reason that children who have once had a taste of the underworld keep returning to it and finally return to it for good is probably that in the underworld they receive a love and appreciation from their oyabun that cannot be had from any correctional institution nor even from foster-parents. ”

“Most Japanese what ever their status or occupation, are involved in oyabun-kobun relationships. … The oyabun-kobun relationship comes into being through one’s occupational training and activities, and carries social and personal implications, appearing symbolically at the critical moments in a man’s life. Indeed the oyabun plays the role of the father, as the term suggests. And it is by no means exceptional for the oyabun to play a more important role than the father. … There may be, of course, the exception who has no oyabun (but may or may not have kobun), or refuses to recognize the authority of his sempai. Such a man, the lone wolf (ippiki okami) is powerful and active but reluctant to conform. Since an oyabun is normally shared by equals, the refusal to recognize an oyabun also reuslts in ostracism from the group sharing an oyabun. Whatever variations may be found in individual cases, it may be said that groups in Japan are formed by the multiplication of a vertical relation between two individuals. Thus the individual locus is determined informally within the network of such a relationship.” …

“In Japan, the ties resulting from an act of co-operation have a strong chance of lasting a lifetime. Only in the warmth of relationship can they hope to complete their task successsfully.

Implications of ranking for career building

The basic pattern of the organization is inherited to a certain degree, though on a smaller scale, by the modern professionals, such as modern artists, scholars, lawyers, etc. The composition of associations of lawyers in Japan, for example is clearly based on vertical relationships, although their activities rest primarily on an individual basis, rather than on employment by an institution. The vertical relationship found between individual advocates is created by former teacher-student and sempai-kohai relationships in the advocates office where they were articled  at the beginning of their careers. …

In fact, a man moving to a position of high responsibility tries his best to bring in his kobun as his formal subordinates. It is well known and recognized among Japanese doctors that a change of director of a large hospital involves the replacement of the great majority of those in subordinate posts: the top man moves in or out with his kobun, his subordinates in an informal structure. it goes without saying that, on gaining the premiership, the leader of a political faction similarly moves in with his kobun. This tendency is strengthened when the nature of a group’s activities calls for close teamwork; it is in a group of this nature that the characteristics of Japanese leadership are most clearly demonstrated.”

“It is my conviction that in Japanese society, at least at present this type of personal relationship is the group’s driving force and brings greater success than any other type of group organization.

For the purpose of scientific research, nothing works so effectively in Japan as a group made up of a senior professor as leader and members selected only from his own followers. Such a a team can achieve its goal no matter how meagre its funds or dismal the environment. The group members have the ‘beautiful, positive quality’ (in Japanese terms) of sparing no effort for the sake of their leader, while from the other side there comes the sympathetic consideration of a leader who offers an affection not just limited to the feeling that ‘they’re good fellows’. …

On the other hand, when Japanese academic research bodies form heterogeneous groups with similar contractural patterns they almost invariably blunder. When they do not fail completely, work proceeds inefficiently because all energies are expended on emotional human relations and the operation does not go at all asmoothly but becomes a tremendous burden. … Generally, this sort of group splits up, whereupon the director invariably becomes the object of malicious carping.

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