An Important Concept to Consider About Confucian Cultures

I have lived both in Japan and in S. Korea. There was an extremely important concept in both places that helps the cultures function better, keeps the crime rate low, and keeps the morals high. In Confucian cultures, they feel responsible for one another. It is not “every man for himself” like so many cultures in the west. They feel the responsibility to take care of one another and make sure they know how to function and how to do things personally. They don’t wait for the government to do it. The older ones are never told to “but out,” but their instructions are appreciated, and the younger ones bow to the older ones and become more humble. In Japan, the older one is called a simpai, and the younger one is called a kohai. In Korea, the older one is called a songbae, and the younger one is called a hubae. It is the same concept. Here are definitions of what these are and what they do, and these would be concepts worth adopting in other countries.

This is the lowest Japanese bow. It is giving the person she is bowing to the utmost respect. The most respect is usually given to the teachers or professors, but there are people higher than even them like the emperor. Usually, they bow at the waste for a professor, so she must be bowing to someone very important.// Photo by Malibi 75 on Pexels.com

The simpai, or the songbae is the older one. When I was in Japan, I had a simpai. Many of my students in Korea had songbaes or were a songbae themselves. My Korean son in law has a songbae. When he sees him, he treats him like his best friend, but that is not what he calls him. Even at my age, when I am in Japan, the person who considered himself my simpai still feels responsible for me. The simpai or the songbae is older than the kohai or the hubae. They are not their teacher. Often times, they are an older student or perhaps an older co-worker. They have done what the kohai or hubae has done before. They may only be a year older, but they understand what the younger one is going through. When I first went to Japan, an American professor made himself responsible for the new American students, and the Japanese considered him our simpai. He knew what it was like to be new in Japan. He knew we wouldn’t understand many things. He knew that we needed to be taught not to make cultural mistakes. He taught us to take our shoes off. He taught us to bow. He taught us what to say and not to say, and when to say certain things. He helped us find somewhere to live. He translated for us. He just flat helped us in any way he could. He wasn’t paid to be kind to us, but he was. He helped us find our way in Japan. Once, even after I wasn’t a student anymore, he heard I was in trouble in the southern part of Japan, and he wired me money, and refused to take any money in repayment. The last time I saw him a few years ago, he insisted on driving me where I needed to go and told me he was responsible for me any time I was in Japan. I was lucky because he was not only following the Japanese custom, but he was also a Christian, and truly cared about people.

Koreans also bow, but not as often or as low as the Japanese bow.//Photo by O-seop Sim on Pexels.com

In Japan and in Korea, the kohai or the hubae give respect to their simpai or songbae. They know they are there to help them, and they listen to what they say. I have taken an enormous amount of advice from my simpai who still lives in Japan. He seemed to have things all together, so I took notes and tried to do things the way he did them when I didn’t quite know which way to go. The simpai or the songbae actually feel responsible to make sure things turn out well for their kohai or hubae in the same way many Christians take care of one another. However, this simpai or songbae and kohai or hubae is not a Christian concept. It is a Confucian concept. You don’t have to be a Christian to do it.

When my kids were growing up, my oldest son felt very responsible to try to keep his little sister out of trouble. If we have simpais or songbae, then we still have someone older than us who tries to keep us out of trouble.//Photo by Ana Francisconi on Pexels.com

When I was growing up, I didn’t have an older brother, only an older sister who wanted me to get lost, two younger brothers, and a younger sister who I took care of. I always had it in my head that if I had an older brother, he would protect me and give me good advice. When we are growing up especially, we need people like that around us. In Japan and Korea, they have someone like that even if they have no brothers or sisters. In Japan or Korea, whoever is the oldest is in charge. That means the ultimate person in charge in a family is grandpa, and in Korea, they also have the grandmothers who are extremely strong. Strong mothers and grandmothers are called ajumas, and you better not cross them in Korea! If everyone is trying to keep the younger ones out of trouble and understanding that those who are older have done it before and know, so they listen to them, it will make a lower crime rate and a higher morality. You don’t have to be a Christian to take care of others. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that someone older than you that has walked where you are walking will know how to avoid the pitfalls. I happen to like Christianity and believe in it, but in Japan and Korea, you don’t have to be a Christian to be a simpai, songbae, kohai, or hubae. You just have to have been through it and understand how to give good advice to the person coming after you or to understand that older people know what they are talking about. This is a concept worth adopting. Most of us would all love an older brother to give us good advice and protect us. Now a days, one of my younger brothers tries to look out for me, and I truly appreciate it. America would be a much better place if we would all look out for one another.

Leave a Reply