Nicole Flett: Doshisha Hula Circle

Dance has always been a big part of my life, so my first thought for CIP was joining a university dance circle. Although I wanted to join a hiphop circle, they unfortunately didn’t answer my email for a few weeks (twitter seems to be the big contact hub for university circles but I didn’t want to create an account). Instead I joined Meahula, a hula group on campus open to females only. They usually don’t take students mid-year (I ran into this problem quite a lot with other dance groups), but since I’ve previously danced hula for about 6 years, the president allowed me to join and learn the first-year group dances.


As much as I disagree with strict kouhai-senpai relationships, I’m glad I was able to experience it with my own eyes through the group. Examples include the senpai waiting for first years to move all the desks and chairs out of the way whenever we used the classroom, and also first years feeling they did something wrong because it wasn’t them who took the mirrors all the way from the other room but the older students. Yet according to my friend, the hula group is one of the stricter ones on campus compared to other university circles in terms of the senpai-kouhai relationship, but it is still far less strict than high school clubs.


I was in the weird position of being a foreigner – one who was sort of a first year for the group because I was learning the first-year dances, but the same age and grade as the senpai, and technically everybody’s senpai in hula because of how much experience I have. Everyone approached me to talk during breaks, but only in groups of kouhai or senpai – there was only once when I was talking to both first years and a senpai at the same time. I was also able to get away with a lot of advantages by not being a real part of the group – I didn’t have to pay fees since I was only borrowing a skirt and uniform, and I also didn’t have to pay for participating in the festival. If anyone felt animosity towards me for being able to swoop in, they didn’t show it though (but my privilege is something I couldn’t help but keep in mind, which is why I made efforts to go to both practices every week – also because I genuinely enjoyed being able to talk and dance with new and old people). I had a great time dancing something I hadn’t in such a long time, and I made a few good friends (both first years, who were arguably easiest to talk to, and senpai who were the same age as me), and many new acquaintances (there were so many girls that when I talked to some for one practice I usually didn’t talk to them again because the next time there would be a new group of girls I’d be talking to). A few my favorite conversations included dropping the “Harvard” bomb, saying that my favorite food was taiyaki, and perfecting the art of talking about my studies and where I live. The best part was hearing that many of the girls admired English and the US because people can say their opinions straightforwardly. If the modern generation thinks this way, I wonder if these senpai-kouhai and strict keigo-speaking relationships can slowly change?



11 thoughts on “Nicole Flett: Doshisha Hula Circle

  1. Hi, Nicole! I’m so glad that you enjoyed your CIP this semester–you guys were amazing in the festival, so your hard work really paid off! Your experience with the kouhai-senpai relationship is definitely very intriguing. I actually haven’t really had the chance to experience it in person here in Japan, so I was very surprised by some of your examples–such as the kouhai and senpai not really interacting very much socially, because at least in my experience with clubs in America, everyone kind of talks to everyone freely no matter what year they are in–we’re all students, and that makes us the same social level. Was the kouhai/senpai code verbally enforced, or was it just mentally enforced? For example, when the first years cleared the room, was it because someone told them specifically to do it, maybe from the beginning of the year? And were both groups purposefully exclusive, or did it just happen to be that way, maybe because the kouhai/senpai practiced different dances? Thanks!

    • Hey Sinai thanks for the comment!! And thanks for watching us at the festival!!! 🙂

      I think the relationships are both mentally and literally enforced. In terms of personal interaction, I thinks it’s a very mental thing (see other comment replies), but on the whole scale because the dances and practices were separated by year, the relationship lines were definitely reinforced on a literal level. It’s definitely a much different environment than my dance group back home, where every year and age is mixed and everyone is super casual with each other (though that’s quite easy to do in English where politeness levels don’t really exist).

      But I also heard that generally university circles aren’t that strict, and it could be a combination of performances and competitions that demand people in the circle think about keeping these traditions. Also judging by everyone’s interaction with me (for the most part), nobody really likes the whole hierarchical relationship idea to being with – I heard several people saying they liked the idea of America because people were so free to say their opinion.

      Though side note, I’d like to mention that, while to me things seemed not that strict in some cases, in actuality it was much more so. I hear there are times when certain senpai would tell a girl individually about something she could fix, but by using keigo she will literally make the girl feel inferior in position – something you don’t experience in an English environment. That kind of thing definitely can happen, but I hear it’s a person by person sort of deal. I myself didn’t experience anyone really telling me how to do things after my initial learning of the dances I was in – honestly I think some senpai felt I was the senpai because I had so many years of experience, so if they wanted to say something I have no idea.

      Double side note I loved the president of the club because she was so sweet but also was very direct with me, and she also told me to be casual with her.

  2. Nicole, practicing hula and experiencing this strict senpai-kouhai relationship is such a unique experience compared to what I did this semester! Additionally, I remember you telling me that your hula circle has 200+ members. Were you able to make solid connections/friendships even though the group was so big? For future students choosing between circles, what do you think the pros (or cons) to joining one on the larger side is compared to joining one on the smaller side?

    • Hi Franny! Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      I think while in the group I thought I hadn’t made a lot of solid friendships, but after performing at the Eve festival I realized I had made quite a few connections with people I know I’ll be contacting again, and quite a few solid friendships. I was also lucky that one of the girls was actually taking one of my classes in KCJS, and through her I was able to talk to even more girls on the Wednesday practice (but I was also able to make friends on the Tuesday practice as well!).

      I think the pros to a larger group is that you basically nail down your self-introduction, because you can meet new groups of people almost every week. You are also able to talk to so many different people, and have so many different conversations and hear so many different opinions. The downside is definitely that it can be hard to make those solid friendships, because you hardly talk to the same person twice, let alone every week. If you make efforts to exchange info and even meet outside of class, though, I think a larger group can be very worth it!

      • I love your pro about nailing down your self-introduction! 🙂 That’s definitely a must here, because people always seem to be curious as to why we are at Doshisha/Japan. It’s also awesome that you chatted with so many people over the course of your CIP, even if those people changed each week. If I were studying abroad next semester again, I think I would want to enter a circle where I’d have this opportunity too!

  3. Nicole! it sounds so much fun!!!! I’m sorry to hear that you are uncomfortable about the senpai and kouhai relationship. I actually talked with my Japanese friend the other day about senpai and kouhai relationshin here. and she said that even though it sounds like kouhai is in the worst position, but senpai also protects kouhai, such as when something happens, its senpai’s responsibility to talk to the authority and protect their kouhai. but since you are a senior, do first year students show respect to you? how does it feel?

    • Thanks for commenting Xiaoyou!!! I agree that senpai can end up really taking care of kouhai. To be honest, people I know say the hula group is SUPER strict, but in reality I thought it could have been much more so, and I think it’s not the case that every senpai demanded respect from the kouhai – rather, it was that they didn’t demand casualness. (See my other comment replies lol)

      Since I was learning and performing wit the first years, they usually spoke casually to me which I really enjoyed and felt comfortable with. I think there were many who were shy – wondering if I would act like a senior – but when they saw me interacting casually with other first years they felt like they could talk to me as well. There were also a few cases of some of them not knowing my Japanese level and being afraid we wouldn’t be able to understand each other. Sometimes they didn’t realize I was older until asking, and some would say “omg!! I’ve been speaking so casually I’m sorry!!” but of course I would tell them noooooooo don’t even, and we could laugh very easily. Overall I actually felt a lot more comfortable around the first years, though I do think I made some good friends with senpai as well.

  4. It was interesting to read about your experience with senpai-kouhai relationships (is there a good word for 上下関係 in English?) since I had to deal with the same sorts of things in the fencing club. With fencing there was a good amount of separation based on age, but for the most part older students never made younger students do anything. Was that a common occurrence in the Hula Club? I think it’s really interesting that different groups have slightly different social structures.

    • Thanks for the comment Michael!

      I guess the word we can use is hierarchical relationships, but let me know if you find something better.

      I think the separation occurred through year level, because practices and dances were separated by year, and so the people you ended up closest to were those in your dance – and everyone speaks casually with their same year (interesting because you could tell year by looking at the different skirt patterns).

      Rather than making anybody doing anything, I think first year students felt pressured to be a certain way out of custom (read reply to Yupei’s comment for more on that). There’s also another level of wanting to please the senpai so that they can get better positions in performances (the formations were based off of attendance, but senpai were the ones who decided those formations). Even though it all sounds kind of scary and strict, seeing it and experiencing it for myself made me think that, more than anything, it was just tedious (though I wasn’t raised in such a pressured environment, and I was the outsider who could get away with a lot if I wanted to, so it might have been terrifying for some girls).

      As for me, everybody usually spoke casually to me – except for a few of the shyer girls who warmed up pretty quickly when I asked them not to use keigo. And I usually spoke casually to the first years, and kind of flipped in and out of teinei with everyone else, except people who particular told me not to. Usually the older girls would ask me my age and either go “ah! We’re the same! Let’s be casual!” Or “ahh, 20, huh? You seem so adult-like” – and I usually stuck to teinei with the latter to not make them feel uncomfortable haha. In my case age seemed to matter more because of my strange situation.

  5. Hi Nicole! I am so, so fascinated by your first-hand experience of senpai-kouhai relations! I have noticed quite frequently on the Doshisha campus that kouhai use teineigo (-desu, -masu) or even keigo when addressing their senpai, while their senpai can respond in plain form or even Kansai-ben slang. It surprised me, and after reading your blog post I couldn’t help but to start reflecting on all the occasions where I must have been terribly rude because I used the wrong form with students maybe a few months to a year older than me…however, making mistakes is all part of the learning experience, right? 🙂

    Your observation also reminds me of what my friends from China have often ranted to me about – either that their senpai demands too much respect or is too strict, or that their kouhai does not show enough respect for them! While I did not experience this directly when in high school (I still addressed my senpai properly as “senpai”, though), I can see how a similar form of social hierarchy might exist in Chinese universities as well. It’s always fascinating to see how interpersonal relations can take completely different forms in different cultures.

    Therefore, I was wondering if you’ve ever talked with your fellow dancers about the senpai/kouhai relations, and asked them what they think of it? Is it something that’s been instilled in them from a young age, by teachers and parents, or is it something that’s more artificially taught in the circle? What do they think of the hierarchy, and what do they think of the separation between senpai and kouhai? 🙂

    • Hi Yupei! Thanks for the comment. long reply ahead:

      Being in the club definitely helped me realize that the hierarchical senpai-kouhai relationship is very real, and as you said I definitely saw some teineigo/keigo-using kouhai and casual form senpai interactions. That being said, we as foreigners have some definite leeway in our interactions, and I don’t think you have to worry about coming off as rude if you forget to speak politely – though I do think it’s a privilege that actual Japanese people feel they can’t utilize.

      I’ve definitely had some interesting conversations about these relationships with my fellow dancers, though! What I found surprising, for the most part while speaking with first years, was that people didn’t care much for the hierarchical relationships personally (i.e. they didn’t mind “slip-ups” in conversation, and some senpai even specifically told me to not speak keigo(teineigo) with them). I think the biggest reason for it existing is the awareness of everyone else around you keeping to those social customs. For instance, they could easily tell me – the foreigner who respects but doesn’t feel socially pressured to keep to age-old customs – to be casual, but wouldn’t do the same to first years speaking to them. And they didn’t necessarily tell people to do this or speak like this, but I think the first years felt obligated to do things out of custom, and kept things polite because they weren’t told not to. Though maybe it was told to them at the beginning of the year, bu I don’t actually know.

      I could talk a lot more about other things I heard, but my last comment is that I think the strict relationship heirarchy is something coming from middle school / high school interactions. It could also be coming from the home, but for the most part I heard people commenting about how, though compared to other university circles our hula group has a stricter kouhai/senpai relationship, when they compare it to their high school clubs it’s actually far more relaxed. I think it’s a particular thing for competing groups, and it’s probably more of a cycle of “this was done to me, I’ll do this too” feel instead of a taught thing. For sure there were other senpai (well loved by kouhai) who kept things casual with the kouhai, and I’m curious to see if the kouhai who don’t really like the heirarchy now we’re to become senpai, would they continue the same interactions or try to encourage a more casual relationship?