Thursday, August 4, 2016

senpai - Meaning in Japanese

In Japanese, senpai 先輩 means somebody's "senior." That is, someone who has been in an organization for longer than you have. This organization can be a school or school club with students, a workplace with employees and salaryman, etc. Sometimes it can refer to someone who has been doing an activity, like a sport, for longer than you have.

The opposite of senpai would be kouhai 後輩, "junior." For every senpai, there's a kouhai, and vice-versa. Someone who is neither a junior nor a senior is a douhai 同輩. These words are also romanized sempai, kōhai, and dōhai.

後わからないことあったら先輩に聞いてくれ。 先輩って?
Manga: Mob Psycho 100, Mobu Saiko Hyaku モブサイコ100 (Chapter 92, 将来を考える)


When the word senpai comes after someone's name, that's called a honorific suffix. It's similar to more common honorific suffixes, like san, chan, and sama. More specifically, senpai works like the word sensei 先生, "teacher," as they're both nouns, titles, honorifics.

  • Tanaka-san wa watashi no senpai
    Tanaka-san is my senpai.
    (here, senpai is a noun, while ~san ~さん is a honorific,)
  • Tanaka-senpai
    (here, senpai is a honorific.)
四宮先輩・・・・・・ まじ卍っす・・・・・・ それ どういう意味ですか? 僕もわかりません・・・・・・
Manga: Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai ~Tensai-Tachi no Ren'ai Zunousen~ かぐや様は告らせたい~天才たちの恋愛頭脳戦~ (Chapter 82, かぐや様は断らない)
  • Context: Shinomiya Kaguya 四宮かぐや did a favor for her kouhai, Ishigami Yuu 石上優, who tells her:
  • Shinomiya-senpai......
    (character name.)
  • maji-manji ssu......
    [You] are maji-manji......
  • sore, douiu imi desu ka?
    それ どういう意味ですか?
    That, [what] does [it] mean?
  • boku mo wakarimasen......
    [I] don't know either......

Duties of a Senpai

With great seniority comes great responsibility. The senpai often has duties and responsibilities that a kouhai doesn't have.

The main duty of a senpai is to teach the kouhai the ropes of the job or activity. The layout of the office, school, or organization. Who is responsible for what, introduce the people. Explain how things work.

後わからないことあったら先輩に聞いてくれ。 先輩って?
Manga: Mob Psycho 100, Mobu Saiko Hyaku モブサイコ100 (Chapter 92, 将来を考える)
  • Context: the company boss welcomes a new employee, explaining him the basics of the job, and then:
  • ato wa wakaranai koto attara senpai ni kiite kure.
    Later if there's something you don't know ask your senpai.
    • ~te-kure
      (meireikei 命令形.)
    • ~te-kureru
      To do [something] for [me].
  • senpai tte?
    Senpai? (who is that?)

Kawaii Kouhai

Some senpai characters want "to try to impress," kakko-tsukeru カッコつける, their kouhai. They'll go an extra length to welcome the kouhai in the organization, often doing things while calling the kouhai their:

  • kawaii kouhai
    Cute junior.
    • An expression of endearment.

Kouhai Becoming Senpai

A trope that often happens in anime is when a character, normally the protagonist, starts an activity, or working somewhere, even in a school club, thus they're the most kouhai character of all in there. The most inexperienced. The bottom of the bottom. And then, after learning a lot of stuff for the episodes and episodes, or chapter and chapters, a new character enters their group and are placed under their care and supervision.

That is, they gain a kouhai of their own. They are the senpai now. It's a pivotal point of character development, as it conveys the growth of the character: they were on the learning end before, now they're on the teaching end.

Example of senpai-kouhai 先輩後輩, "seniors and juniors."
Top-left: Ginoza Nobuchika 宜野座伸元
Top-right: Tsunemori Akane 常守朱
Bottom-right: Shimotsuki Mika 霜月美佳
Anime: Psycho-Pass, Saiko-Pasu サイコパス (Episodes 1, 22)
  • In the first episode of Psycho-Pass, the protagonist Tsunemori Akane 常守朱 joins the law enforcement, welcomed by and placed under the supervision of Ginoza Nobuchika 宜野座伸元, her senpai.
  • In the last episode of Psycho-Pass, the scene from the start of the series is recreated, this time with Shimotsuki Mika 霜月美佳 joining the law enforcement, welcomed by and placed under the care of Tsunemori Akane.
  • The concept of Tsunemori starting as a kouhai and ending as a senpai symbolizes the growth of her character, developed through the 22 episodes.

Respect Your Senpai

In Japan, the senpai-kouhai 先輩後輩 system is an hierarchical system where the kouhai must respect, and thus obey, the senpai. In simple words, it's thought that the senpai is more "important," erai 偉い, than the kouhai. The senpai is above the kouhai hierarchically.

この状況では 先輩であるオレの命令が絶対だ それを拒否するってんだな! 覚悟してろよ ただしてめーが生き残ったらの話だがな
Manga: JoJo's Bizarre Adventure - Part 5: Golden Wind, JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken: Ougon no Kaze ジョジョの奇妙な冒険 黄金の風 (Chapter 42 (481), マン・イン・ザ・ミラーとパープル・ヘイズ その③)
  • Context: it's the attack of an enemy stand! The senpai, Leone Abbacchio レオーネ・アバッキオ, has a plan to deal with it, but the kouhai, Giorno Giovanna ジョルノ・ジョバァーナ, thinks there's a better way. The senpai snaps:
  • kono joukyou dewa
    In this situation,
  • {senpai de aru} ore no meirei ga zettai da
    The orders of me, [who] {is the senior}, are absolute.
    • Because I'm your senior, my orders are absolute.
  • sore wo kyohi suru tte-n-da na!
    [What you're] saying [is you're] denying that, [right?]!
    • tte-n-da
    • to-itte-iru-no-da
      [What you] are saying.
  • kakugo shitero yo
    [Prepare yourself.]
    • There will be consequences to your insubordination!
    • kakugo
      Resolve. Determination.
  • tadashi temee ga iki-nokottara no hanashi daga na
    However, that's [only] if you survive.

In anime, sometimes this senpai-kouhai system is called antiquated, specially by characters that don't like the idea of having to respect their senpai and speaking politely toward them just because they're their senpai.

Senpai Bullies

Some senpai are useless, abusive bullies. They don't help their kouhai at all, instead seeing them as servants, slaves, or worse. The kouhai can't fight back because of social norms. After all, the senpai are "above" them.

In anime, it's a common trope for such senpai bullies to exist, abusing the intrinsic authority and power of their position. They're usually villains or antagonists that must be defeated somehow so their victims can be saved.

Younger Senpai

Since being a senpai has to do with how long you've been somewhere, or done something, rather than how old you are, young senpai become troublesome. That's because you're supposed to respect your elders, but you're also supposed to respect your senpai. The hierarchy becomes unclear: you don't know who's "above" who.

In anime, a recurring trope is an older character having to work with a younger senpai and start hating that fact. Specially when the senpai is some child prodigy; Conversely, you'll eventually find an older character that respects their younger senpai for their skills.

よろしくお願いします影山先輩。 え?あ・・・よろしくお願いします・・・ キンチョーしてきた・・・
Manga: Mob Psycho 100, Mobu Saiko Hyaku モブサイコ100 (Chapter 92, 将来を考える)
  • yoroshiku onegaishimasu, Kageyama-senpai.
    [Take care of me,] Kageyama-senpai.
    • Expression used when meeting someone, or entering care or supervision of someone else, in this case, their senpai.
  • e?
  • a... yoroshiku onegaishimasu...
    (the expression can also be used in response to itself.)
  • kinchoo shitekita...
    [Now I feel] nervous...
    • Relaxed pronunciation of:
    • kinchou
      Nervous. Anxious. Tense.
    • In this case, because he's now burdened with the responsibility of having a kouhai.


In anime, senpai is often translated to "upperclassmen," but that's not what senpai literally means. Children generally start school at the same age, so year age, and grade, school year, naturally matches their seniority.

However, if a character skips grades and starts high school much younger than other students, they're still a senpai despite being younger. Conversely, if they repeat a grade, they can be the senpai of someone who's the same grade as them.

なんで子どもが? あなたは新入生ですね? え?そ そうだけど 私は 美浜ちよ, 2年生です 美浜先輩ですよ 美浜・・・先輩・・・
Manga: Azumanga Daioh あずまんが大王 (Volume 2, Chapter April, Part 2)
  • Context: a character introduced as a 10 year old child prodigy already enrolling high-school shows the stuff she has to deal with.
  • nande kodomo ga?
    Why is a kid [here]?
  • *triggered*
  • anata wa shin'nyuusei desu ne?
    You're a new student, [aren't you]?
  • e? so sou dakedo
    え?そ そうだけど
    Eh? [Y-yes, what about it]?
  • watashi wa Mihama Chiyo, ninensei desu
    私は 美浜ちよ, 2年生です
    I'm Mihama Chiyo, a second-year student.
  • Mihama-senpai desu yo
    [To you, I'm] Mihama-senpai, [got it?]
  • Mihama... senpai...

For reference, to say "upperclassman" in Japanese:

  • joukyuusei 上級生 (or jōkyūsei)
    Higher grade student.
  • doukyuusei 同級生 (or dōkyūsei)
    Same grade student.
    Classmate. (in the same grade only.)
  • kakyuusei 下級生 (or kakyūsei)
    Lower grade student.


The kanji of senpai 先輩 mean "early" and "comrade." That is, one comrade who's started the activity earlier than you.

  • saki
    Earlier. Before.

By the way, kouhai 後輩 has the same kanji as ato 後, "after, " while douhai 同輩 has the same kanji as "same," onaji 同じ.

Honorific Suffixes

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