For fans of anime and manga, one of the first few Japanese words you can quickly get acquainted with is senpai (先輩 / せんぱい). You may hear this frequently in stories set in schools. A senpai is someone’s senior or superior, an older person who is looked up to in school or the workplace because of their experience.
In Japanese society, a hierarchical structure is introduced to children from a young age, starting from the home, the school, and up until they are of working age. Let’s see how to use the term senpai to refer to your seniors.
What does senpai mean in Japanese?
Senpai (先輩 / せんぱい) is an JLPT N4-level Japanese word equivalent to ‘senior’ or ‘superior’ in English. It usually refers to someone older or more experienced than you. They can be a higher-level student at school or a colleague at work who entered the company before you.
We can break down the word for senpai into two characters. The first character is read as sen (先 / セン) in onyomi or the Chinese reading. It means ‘before’, ‘ahead’, or ‘previous’. The second character’s onyomi reading is pai (輩 / パイ), and it means ‘comrade’, or ‘companion’.
The opposite of senpai is kouhai (後輩 / こうはい), meaning ‘junior’. They are typically younger, less experienced people who are to be guided by their superiors.
Because of popular media, the ‘Notice me, senpai!’ trend blew up. Some anime fans associate this phrase with unrequited love or some form of romantic expression towards a crush. But getting noticed by your senpai simply means being acknowledged by someone you greatly admire, like a veteran sports player on your team, the smartest student in the year above you or – well, your upperclassman crush!
How to use senpai
Someone is your senpai if:
- They are older than you in your common group or organization
- They have more experience than you (regardless of age)
- They started school, work, or were a part of your common group earlier than you
You can use the word senpai in two main ways.
It can be used as an honorific suffix (-senpai / ～先輩 / ～せんぱい) by attaching the word to the end of someone’s name (ex. Tanaka-senpai).
You can also use senpai alone when addressing someone. Calling someone senpai without using their name is still a sign of respect.
Note that the most common way to address your seniors in the workplace is using the honorific -san (～さん) attached to their name. This is equivalent to ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ in English.
Keep in mind that seniors command respect, so it’s best to use polite language when interacting with them.
Sempai or senpai?
The correct way to write it in romaji is senpai. The word is spelled with an “n” (ん) in kana (せんぱい), and if you check hiragana and katakana charts, the character ん corresponds to n in latin characters. Meanwhile, the only “m” characters are ma (ま), mi (み), mu (む), me (め), and mo (も).
What about sempai? It isn’t totally wrong, but the “m” romanization has more to do with the pronunciation of the word. Just like how in the English language, words that contain “n” followed by consonants like “p”, “b”, or “m” take more of an “m” sound.
So phonetically, sempai is not incorrect, but when writing down the word せんぱい in romaji, senpai is the way to go.
In case you’re still a little confused, this video by Richard Heiney breaks down the pronunciation for senpai very well!
Hierarchy in Japanese society
The concept of hierarchy in Japanese society is deeply rooted in Confucian beliefs. Obedience is one of the important values. Whoever is at the top of the social pyramid should be obeyed and respected by those beneath them.
During the Tokugawa period, the family structure placed the father as the head of household. Following him was the eldest to the youngest sons, then his wife, then finally, the eldest to youngest daughters. Inheritance also usually follows this line of succession. Daughters can inherit the headship of the family, but once they are married, their husbands will succeed instead.
The values of obedience and filial piety shaped much of family and even political structure. In other words, a parent-child relationship was akin to ruler-subject.
Although this family system is not observed in modern Japan, other forms of social hierarchy are still present. The senpai-kouhai relationship is one of them.
Senpai vs. Sensei
Because anime and manga have become popular around the world, terms like senpai, sensei, and kouhai get randomly thrown around in conversation. It’s easy to get confused, so here’s a little background.
The hierarchy level is as follows:
Sensei is an honorific title used to address someone who is a ‘teacher’ or ‘master’ (ex. Yamada-sensei). Teachers do not call themselves sensei. Instead, they use the noun kyoushi (教師 / きょうし) for ‘teacher’. The sensei is responsible for all his or her students, regardless of their length of stay in the group.
For someone to be addressed this way, they should have some form of mastery or high level of skill or experience in their field. In fact, doctors and professors can also be called sensei.
Meanwhile, senpai are your fellow members of a group, the difference is that they have been part of the group longer than you and are more experienced.
Senpai at school
You might have first encountered the senpai-kouhai relationship in school-related manga or anime. It’s often exaggerated in the media, but in real life, senpai at school usually serve as role models and caring guides to their juniors.
Just like teachers, one can learn a lot from their seniors simply because they have been around longer. Teachers also depend on seniors for help in mentoring the younger students. Sure, some older students may abuse their senpai status and boss others around, but it is expected of them to be responsible in front of their juniors.
Let’s pretend you are a newcomer at an after-school tennis club. Your instructor or coach is your sensei. They typically assign the more difficult tasks, such as carrying heavy equipment or planning gatherings to the senior members or senpai. The senpai are expected to welcome and show the ropes to the younger members or kouhai, who are usually assigned to setting up and putting away nets, rackets, balls, and other equipment.
Senpai in the workplace
Even among working adults, the seniority system is still prevalent. Upon entering a company, younger colleagues can expect their senpai to guide them along, help them settle in, and ‘mentor’ them.
Seniors at work are not necessarily your boss – they can be colleagues in the same department who joined the team before you. But there still are certain expectations, like the seniors must pay for lunches or dinners out, the juniors must pour their seniors drinks at nomikai (drinking parties), and that juniors must not leave the office before their superiors. It is good to use polite language or keigo with them.
That’s not to say senpai and kouhai can’t be friends. They most certainly can! It is not a strict boss-employee relationship, but more like a coworker dynamic.
Rather than a strict senior-junior relationship, senpai can be friends with their kouhai. However there will always be the nuance that the underclassman learns from the upperclassman. In this vein, the senpai is partly responsible for the growth of the kouhai.
Senpai in Japanese
So know you know how to use senpai in Japanese correctly. Beyond the ‘notice me!’ memes, senpai is an essential Japanese word to understand if you want to live, work or study in Japan.
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Thea is a freelance content writer, currently majoring in Japanese studies. She likes to create art and draws inspiration from film and music. Thea was inspired to study Japanese language and culture by reading the literary works of Haruki Murakami and Edogawa Ranpo.