How the Meaning of Senpai has Evolved throughout the History of Japan

Foreign travelers or avid fans of Japanese anime will notice different suffixes attached to people’s names. Some of the most common ones include -san, -kun, and -chan. These attachments are known as Japanese honorifics, which can be associated to the English language’s Miss, Sir, and Madame.

However, referring to these terms as mere titles is an understatement. Each honorific has its own set of rules in terms of usage and can be used to determine the relationships of people.

An Overview of Japanese Honorifics

Japanese honorifics are often gender neutral but there are a few that are more frequently used for males or females. For example, the informal honorifics -kun and -chan are commonly used to address close male and female friends, respectively. The formal honorific, -san, on the other hand, serves as a respectful way of calling strangers, acquaintance, and practically anybody else.

Generally, these suffixes are used in conjunction with a person’s name in order to show respect and humility. As such, not making use of an honorific or using one to refer to oneself can be considered as an act of arrogance or clumsiness. Japanese honorifics may only be dropped by people addressing extremely close friends, younger members of the family, spouses, or social inferiors.

Many other honorifics also exist to better denote the sense of respect and intimacy between two people. A more respectful suffix than -san is -sama, which is often used to show that the person being addressed has a higher social ranking than the person speaking. For individuals who have attained a significant level of mastery of a particular thing, the honorific -sensei is often attached to their names to refer to them.

Interestingly, there are also several honorifics that come in pairs to represent which person is more experienced than the other. A common pair still used today, particularly in a school or university, is -senpai and -kohai, which serves as the equivalent of senior and junior of the Western culture or English dictionary.

The Senpai & Kohai Concept and its Meaning / Equivalent Term in English

The senpai-kohai system dates back to the early days of Japanese history and has evolved year after year to include the concepts of Confucianism, the culture of Japanese families, and the 1898 Civil Code. The literal English translations of both honorifics mean “earlier colleague” (senpai) and “later colleague” (kohai).

Each title is used to describe the informal, interpersonal hierarchy of members within an association, organization, business, or school. The senpai-kohai system is described to be an interdependent relationship, given that a kohai requires a senpai and vice versa. A person’s senpai or kohai role is dictated by his or her date of entry into the group.

Those who are older or have more experience are referred to as senpai and are responsible for offering guidance, assistance, and friendship to younger or inexperienced individuals known as kohai. The relationship is similar to that of a tutor and tutee but with an added sense of camaraderie, and even friendship.

Given that the concept revolves around a vertical hierarchy which puts great emphasis on authority, respect, and elders, kohais are expected to refer to their senpais using -senpai as an honorific. Younger members are given the same amount of respect by their seniors but are rarely addressed with the -kohai suffix.

The Importance & Meaning of Senpai in Japanese History


By unknown stitched by Marku1988 This panoramic image was created with Panorama PerfectStitched images may differ from reality. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


As previously mentioned, the concept of having a senpai goes back to the beginning of Japan’s history and incorporates doctrines from Confucianism, the traditional family system, and the Civil Code of 1898.

Although Confucianism had already been introduced to the country by China sometime from the 6th century to the 9th century, significant social changes were only brought about when the Tokugawa shogunate treated Neo-Confucianism as their official doctrine from the early 1600s to the late 1860s.

Neo-Confucianism is best described to be a secular and more rational form of Confucianism, given its lack of mystical and superstitious elements. One of the main concepts of Neo-Confucianism discusses the importance and meaning of paying respect towards one’s ancestors and elders through worship. This sense of filial piety and loyalty was adopted by the Japanese and applied to their feudal military government.

Another Confucian belief that shaped the senpai-kohai system during the early years of Japan was ie, the traditional family system. According to this code of conduct, each family is headed by the father, who has complete control over the family members, while the eldest son serves as the heir of the family’s properties. Fathers are given such power and respect for their attained education and high level of knowledge.

At the time, reverence for superior individuals played an important part in the Japanese society so wives and other children were expected to practice a deep sense of obedience and humility. Furthermore, only the eldest son could serve as the recipient of a father’s possessions.

The importance and privileges of seniority were further strengthened through the Civil Code of 1898. This code also reinforced a more defined family system known as koshusei, which translates to mean “head of the family” in English. A clearer sense of authority and command was given to the head of each household, while the eldest son was given the privilege of eventually inheriting the same position.

The Importance & Meaning of Senpai in Modern Japan

Although the koshusei, along with other decrees, ultimately vanished by the end of World War II, the concept of seniority, be it in terms of family or social status, remains present in Modern Japan. The rules of seniority are especially prevalent in the Japanese language and are classified into three distinct forms of honorific speech known as keigo:

  • Teineigo 

Teineigo, which roughly translates to mean “polite language” in English, is one of the easiest keigo forms and is usually the first one taught to beginners of the Japanese language. Many locals also frequently use teineigo, given its casual but good-mannered tone.

  • Sonkeigo

Sonkeigo, also known as “respectful language” in English, gives focus to a superior individual, including all his characteristics, possessions, actions, and other things related to him.

  • Kenjogo

Kenjogo, or “humble language”, is used by a speaker when he wants to denote a sense of respect to the person he is addressing by making it a point to lower his own status.

The three forms of keigo stated above each has its own set of prefixes, nouns, and verbs used for signifying the hierarchical relations between people. In addition, the Japanese language also makes use of honorific suffixes to imply various relationships. The senpai concept remains alive as an honorific suffix commonly used in schools, universities, businesses, and martial arts.

Individuals with more experience within the group address do not use the term kohai as a suffix but, instead, address younger members with -kun as an attachment to their first or last names, regardless of whether they are males or females. Accordingly, kohais refer to their superiors by adding -senpai to their given or family names, as a sign of respect.

High School or University Setting

The senpai-kohai relation is applied to a great extent within academic institutions, especially in high school settings. Sports clubs, in particular, have certain practices that showcase the privileges and responsibilities of older and younger members.

Kohais are usually in charge of performing simple tasks such as cleaning, maintenance, and even washing the uniforms of their senpais. Furthermore, they are expected to salute or bow to their senpais when they are congratulated, while senpais are allowed to discipline or punish their kohais as they wish.

Although this relationship may seem unfair, the main reason for the grand humility expressed by kohais is done on the belief that team members can only become great future players by initially learning to be obedient and submissive to their captains or trainers. Practicing humble actions is also believed to make one a cooperative and responsible citizen in the future.

The hierarchy system of Japanese high schools is determined in terms of one’s age, more so than one’s abilities. As such, this sense of superiority remains analogous to the relationship between students and teachers, which features an unquestionable sense of respect for the latter’s wisdom and experience.

However, the concept of senpais and kohais are not as implemented in universities, where classes are often attended by students of varied ages. The use of polite language (teineigo) is more prevalent in this setting than the use of the honorific suffix -senpai.

Business Setting

In terms of business, the senpai and kohai relationship can also be observed through various practices. Permanent employment systems and superiority systems make up the social environment of Japanese businesses.

Before the 21st century, employment in Japan was a surefire thing that people did not have to worry about losing. Today, an individual’s position, salary, and status within a company are greatly dictated by his level of seniority in terms of his entry to the group and his potential. As such, an employee will either move up the company ladder or eventually be replaced by someone with more skill.

Furthermore, the interpersonal relations of the business world of Japan relies on the senpai-kohai system. For example, employees with a lower level are required to sit near the door during meetings while senior employees or bosses sit next to important guests. The area for kohai is known as shimoza, which means “lower seat” and the area for senpais is known as kamiza, which means “upper seat”.

During these events, kohais are expected to simply listen and agree with their kohais. However, they may express their opinions after acquiring the consent of higher ranking individuals within the company or meeting.

The Importance & Meaning of Senpai in Anime and Fandom Slang

Just as the concept of senpai has been around in the real world for so long that pinpointing its actual date of inception is virtually impossible, nobody really knew when the trend for senpai-kohai relationships in Japanese anime and manga started. Ranma ½, which ran from October 1989 to September 1992, is among the popular shows that frequently made use of Japanese honorifics and titles, but earlier anime series are believed to have also used the concept.

At present, many storylines still incorporate the senpai-kohai system, especially those that revolve around high school life such as Magical Girl Madoka Magica and Ouran High School Host Club. These shows often have the senpais teasing the kohais, senpais serving as a trainer/mentor to kohais, or senpais looking out for their kohais.

However, pop culture has given the word senpai a life of its own, particularly in the English-speaking, anime fandom community. In recent years, the phrase “Notice me, senpai!” has become quite a popular meme for comically getting the attention of a person’s older crush or role model.

Although no anime show has actually used the phrase, it easily spread like wildfire across the internet due to its semi-accurate summary of anime senpai-kohai relationships.

Issues Surrounding the Senpai-Kohai Concept

Although the senpai-kohai system is deeply rooted in the social conducts of Japan and has been practiced since the country’s earlier years, several changes within academic and business associations have occurred since the end of the 20th century.

The relationship between senpai and kohai has become quite superficial and is starting to lose some of its most basic concepts. Determining seniority in terms of age is not as implemented today as it was in ancient times. Furthermore, with individuals being raised overseas and with the increase of foreign students, the senpai-kohai mentality fails to be properly maintained within diverse academic institutions.

When the economic bubble collapsed in the 1990s, seniority also lost some of its influence in the business world, as many companies started looking at the skills of employees rather than their length of service with the organization. At present, several Japanese businesses are restructuring their promotion and salary systems, which veteran employees blame for their sudden unemployment or lack of power.

The Japanese community is somewhat divided when it comes to the senpai-kohai system. Others view it as a tradition that should be appreciated and maintained, while others exhibit a deep sense of antipathy towards it. Regardless, both sides consider the concept to be a social code of conduct believed to bring negative consequences to those who stray from it.