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

Published July 11th, 2021

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!