What Does Senpai Mean? – Se (せ) – 先輩 (Senpai)

What Does the Japanese Word Senpai Mean in English?

I saw an interesting exchange the other day during a variety show on TV. There were two women who worked at the same company, and they both called each other 「先輩」 “senpai” (senior). According to their story, Ms. A called Ms. B “senpai” because she had started working at the company first, while Ms. B called Ms. A “senpai” because she was older. So, which is correct?
How to use the term


Japanese Senpai: Definition

In Japan, people are called “senpai” if they are
① “Older, more experienced, in a higher social position, etc.,” or regardless of age.
② “Have entered the same school or workplace earlier,” and there is a culture of approaching them with polite manners and speech.
In other words, the women from before were actually both correct. In reality, however, definition ② seems to be more common.
This sort of relationship normally starts around middle school. During club activities especially, senpai strictly instruct their 「後輩」 “kohai” (juniors) for training purposes.
Once you become a working adult, however, senpai take on more of a role of looking after their juniors, and the relationship isn’t as rigid as it was as students. When called “senpai,” many people feel a sense of responsibility to raise and look after their kohai.

Illustration of the relationships between Sensei, Senpai, and Kōhai

what does senpai mean-sensei kohai senpai

How to Use the Term “Senpai” in Japanese

By the way, there are two ways to call somebody “senpai.” The first is to attach the person’s name before 「先輩」 “senpai,” as with 「吉田先輩」 “Yoshida-sempai.” For working adults, it’s also common to attach “san” after someone’s name, as with 「吉田さん」 “Yoshida-san.”
The second way is to directly refer to someone as “senpai” without attaching their name. What’s important to pay attention to is not just what you call someone, but also expressing respect toward them.
There isn’t a need to use honorific language, but it’s wise to at least use polite forms such as 「です」 “desu” and 「ます」 “masu.” If you do so, your “senpai” will be happy to teach you about the job.  Read about how to use San, Sama, Kun.etc
However, there are some people whose relationship with their seniors is more so as “coworkers,” even if they call them “senpai” as a hierarchical formality. You could say that, when compared with the boss, it’s a much closer relationship.
They might be saved by warm encouragement from their “senpai” after being scolded by their boss. Please adeptly lean on your “senpai” and create a good relationship.

About the Author:

Kumi Tanaka Sensei is In charge of Nihongo Plus class: N1 Grammar, Reading, as well as our Business Japanese Classes – During graduate school she researched second language acquisition and has 12 years experience as a professional Japanese teacher.
From Tanaka Sensei:
How I’d like to contribute to learners
Rather than fit them into a mold, I would like to teach Japanese in a way that allows learners to express their true selves. At the same time, I want to set clear goals and to offer academic and emotional support to help them achieve those goals.

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