Sensei

Literally translated, the Japanese word Sensei, means the “person born before another,” or the “one who has gone before.” The following is just some thoughts on that.

Serving as a missionary for two and a half years in Japan taught me some unforgettable lessons. I realized, as I immersed myself in this foreign culture and way of life, that there were some things I like about my native culture more than Japanese culture, but there were also many things I appreciated more about Japanese culture and way of life. It is so easy to think I have it all figured out, or “my people” do it the right way. But, I realized quickly that this is the far from the truth. It’s like this anytime you mix and two things together. Like when my wife and I got married. We disagreed on silly things like whether you need to use a knife when measuring flour, or not. Whether you have to separate colors and whites if washing on cold, or not. Whether you should put knives facing up or down in the drying rack (of course, that one depends on your drying rack, if it’s metal, up; if it’s plastic, down is fine).

Maybe it’s a dumb metaphor, but when you mix two things, like water and flour for instance, you create something completely new. Alone, one is water, one is flour, but together it makes a dough/batter. Mix cultures, or ways of life, and this happens as well. Things change. We learn. In Japan, the concept of sensei taught me about what it means to follow.

A beautiful part of Japanese life and culture is the concept of sensei, the one who has gone before. Which of course requires that there are those who follow behind.

In high school, I remember a couple of the feared insults were, “poser” and “follower.” They both pointed to this strange fear of not being unique, different, or yourself. I’ve alway enjoyed these lines from the song Rodeo Clowns, “Teeny bopping disco queen / She barely understands her dreams of belly button rings / And other kinds of things / Symbolic of change, but the thing that is strange / Is that the changes occur / And now she’s just a part of the herd.”

We are all followers. Not one person has ever led without having been led at some point. So it’s fascinating that we think we can be disconnected from other generations and assume it will all work out.

In Japan, a sensei could never imagine being a sensei without having followed behind one first. There is a great respect in many cultures for those who are older, those who have gone before. This, unfortunately, is something we have lost in American society. Respect for elders is a dying value. We tend to write off our elders as out-of-touch, slow, “old-school.” But, the wealth of knowledge, experience, passion, and wisdom they hold is a deep well. On the other hand, our society hasn’t always been great in it’s interaction with young people either. I read recently, “Most people avoid junior high ministry because most people avoid things that are unpleasant. People don’t usually stand in line to sign up for a bad time. Junior highers are often stereotyped as being rowdy, restless, silly, impossible to handle, moody, vulgar, disrespectful, and unpredictable.” At the same time junior highers are creative, extremely enthusiastic, fun loyal, energetic, open, and eager to learn!

The thing I find amazing about Japense culture, then, is how faithfully Japanese people, and in my case the students I taught, studied and followed their sensei. There was an utmost respect and sincere belief that this person who was older than the, who has gone before them was a invaluable asset to their growth, learning, and ultimately success in life. This is an amazing (of course not perfect) cultural system found in all parts of culture, in education, in sports clubs, businesses, and informal or social organizations. And these relationship are an essential element of Japanese society.

I have distinct memories of looking down at the tennis teams practice of our classroom on the second floor asking, when do the freshmen get to play. A Japanese teacher explained that they are kohai (lowerclassmen, for lack of a better translation) so all they will do for their first year on the team is chase balls while the senpai (upperclassmen) practice. And they do it! Why? Because respect for elders, even those just a year or two ahead of you is how you learn, how you become disciplined, stronger, wiser. You follow those who have gone ahead of you.

In our society we follow twitter profiles. And, if we are really feeling strong, we unfollow one. We follow blogs. Instagram accounts. We follow our friends. We follow all kinds of things. We are all followers.

We recently discussed in our youth group who/what we turn to in a crisis? Or if we have a hard question to ask. Things like that. Top two answers were friends and google.

Why are we not running to our sensei, to our elders, to those who have gone before us? Why are we not following them? No matter where we are in life, we all need to consider two things: 1) Who are you following and what are you learning from them, and 2) Who is following you and what will those following behind learn from you?