Senpai: What it means and how to use it in Japanese!

Senpai: What it means and how to use it in Japanese!

So you’ve watched a few episodes of anime or Japanese drama and heard the word “senpai” (先輩) more than a couple of times. I think it might have been the first few Japanese words that I’ve learned. I bet even your friends who don’t know Japanese might know this word.

If you watched it with subtitles, then you probably have assumed the meaning of it. But we’re here to clearly define what it is, how to use it and if it’s used as often in real life as it is in Japanese media.

All your doubts and questions are cleared and answered right here in this article – you’re just a scroll away from them!

The Definition of ‘Senpai’

So, what is “senpai”? The word can be defined as “senior, superior or elder” in short. It then begs the question of who can be classified as a senpai – what are the requirements to hold such a title?

Basically, a senpai is a person who is in a higher position than you in terms of skill, age, experience or social status. A senpai can also be someone who entered a workplace or school earlier than you.

Let’s look at a few examples. 

In Japanese schools, the term senpai as well as kouhai (後輩) are first introduced. The older students enter the school earlier than the younger ones, hence they’re automatically senpais. In this case, age might not matter (although the usual case is that those older than you are in grades above you). If you have someone of the same age but enters school earlier, they’re still considered a senpai.

Especially during after-school club activities, the senpai-kouhai relationship is strong as the senpais are required to instruct their kouhais and train them.

Then there’s the workplace. The senpai terminology isn’t only used in schools. At a workplace, the relationship between senpais and kouhais differ a bit. Instead of instructing their kouhai, senpais take on the role of taking care of the people under them. If you’re a senpai at work, you have a sense of responsibility to look after your kouhai. Depending on the company, the senpai-kouhai relationship can differ.

Other organisations like part-time jobs and those relying on mentorship relationships like dojos also have similar senpai-kouhai relationships. 

How to Use ‘Senpai’

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So, how do you use the term “senpai”? At school, you usually attach it to the end of the person’s name. If the person in the grade above you is called Nakamura Kei, you can call him “Nakamura-senpai”. Sometimes, depending on the situation, you can also call them with their first name, like “Kei-senpai”. This reflects the intimacy of the relationship, but most of the time, it’s the last name.

At workplaces, it’s common to attach “san” (さん) instead of “senpai”. “San” acts more like “Mr.”, “Miss”, or “Mrs.”, but it holds the same impact as “senpai”. Say the same person is in a higher hierarchical position than you at work. You can call him “Nakamura-san”. This way is more appropriate than the first way.

Alternatively, you could just call him “senpai” on its own without the name attached to the title. This can be used at both school and workplace. 

The Respect Attached to “Senpai”

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What’s just as important as the title is the respect attached to it. Just like any title, there’s a certain way you have to act with someone who holds that title. You don’t go up to your boss and say, “Hey, man! How’s it going”, right? If you do, I envy you – you have a pretty cool boss. 

Anyway, your senpai is someone who is more experienced or skilled, older than you or someone who is going to train and take care of you. In other words, your care is in their hands. Whether it’s at school’s club activities or at the workplace, your senpai has insights and skills that they can pass down to you.

When speaking to your senpai, it’s best to use the polite or formal form. This includes the “desu” (です) and “masu” (ます) forms. By using these forms, you’re showing that you’re respecting your senpai.

Or at least for the beginning of the senpai-kouhai relationship. Over time, you might find yourself growing very close to your senpai and it then becomes a more “douryou” (同僚) relationship where you speak less formally. I know a few friends who are extremely close with their senpai that they go out drinking ever so often and talk like they’re the closest buddies. It all really balls down to how cool your senpai is. You might get a strict senpai who plays by the hierarchical formality pretty rigidly. 

Now that you know who can be classified as a senpai, how to use the term and how to act with a senpai, will you be practicing this with your higher-ups at the workplace or school? I’m pretty sure they’ll be honoured to be called your senpai. I’ll try that with higher-ups – you should, too!

Senpai! Please Notice This Blog Post!

Senpai! Please Notice This Blog Post!

senpai kohaiIf you’ve studied Japanese culture at all, you’ve likely come across the words senpai and kohai. What do these words mean exactly? The truth is that the senpai/kohai relationship in Japan is one of the most important systems that the people there follow. The basic idea behind it is that the more experienced person is the senpai and the less experienced person is the kohai. This is particularly true in schools, clubs, and places of work. In these situations, the senpai acts as a friend and mentor to the newer, less experienced person in order to help guide and teach them. They are in charge of keeping tabs on the new recruit and help them navigate the waters by showing them how things are done, how to please the boss/coach and other things of that nature.

Sounds pretty great for the kohai, right? They get a new friend who is usually around their same age and a mentor all in one. What’s the catch? Respect. If you’re the kohai in the relationship, you show respect to your elder at all times. You do the menial tasks that no one else really wants to do, you pour the drinks at parties and functions, and you show deference to your senpai as much as you possibly can.

This is a system that has been in place since the beginning of Japanese history. It’s not going to disappear at any point in the near future so if you end up staying in Japan for an extended period of time, you should probably do your best to get used to it as soon as possible.

If it sounds tough, that would be because it can be and before you ask, yes there have been cases of senpai letting the power go to their heads to the point of being severely punished for abusing their kohai. In the modern era, the senpai/kohai system has relaxed a little. With the economic bubble burst of 1992, more senior members of the workforce suddenly found themselves having to find new companies to work for which led to kohai appearing who were physically older than their senpai. In other circles, the extreme respect that was expected from the younger members of the team is being lessened as well (though the appropriate level of politeness in language is still expected).

The general attitude towards the senpai system is acceptance though there are still plenty of critics within Japan who are reluctant to accept it or even completely indifferent. Many people feel that the system is antiquated or that their senpai was overly bossy or pushy. Others are afraid that it is creating generations of citizens who are afraid to stand out from the pack for fear of outshining their senpai and causing them to lose face.

Regardless of how you feel about this system, it has survived many centuries and is so ingrained into Japanese society that it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll experience it at some point during any extended stay within the country.