The sense of social hierarchy in Japan is hard to escape. Besides the obvious, visible distinctions among different levels in the social hierarchy, it’s even built into the language through the extensive honorifics system (which is covered in our Japanese Honorifics Guide) and other polite speech.
One of the most important relationships in the Japanese social hierarchy is the relationship between the senpai (先輩) and kohai (後輩). This is a relationship that affects many Japanese people, and is often seen in anime, TV shows, movies, comics, and books.
Because of its importance in Japanese society, it’s even more crucial that, as a student of Japanese, you understand the senpai/kohai system and all it entails.
What Is A Senpai/Kohai?
Unfortunately, there isn’t any very accurate English translations for senpai nor kohai. They’re very Japanese concepts that aren’t prevalent in Western society.
A senpai is sometimes compared to a mentor, but that doesn’t catch all of the nuances of the word in Japanese.
In the Western concept of a mentorship, we often think of the mentor being somebody who is significantly older, wiser, and more experienced than the person being mentored. This usually isn’t the case in the senpai/kohai dynamic.
A senpai and kohai are generally similar in a lot of ways. They’re usually fairly close in age, and have a similar occupation and social standing.
The differences is when it comes to seniority and/or experience. Two people may both be students at the same school, but if one is a first-year student and the other is a third-year, then that would constitute a senpai/kohai relationship.
How Does The Relationship Work?
What does this relationship entail? The kohai is put into a bit of a subordinate position, respecting the senpai’s seniority. In return, the senpai is supposed to look after, take care of, and guide the kohai.
You see this relationship in action in lots of places; when a senpai and kohai go to a bar together, the kohai will pour the senpai’s drinks. When they go to a restaurant, the kohai might order the same thing as the senpai.
The senpai/kohai system is most often associated with students, but it pervades tons of other places in Japanese society too. Co-workers and sports teams often have a senpai/kohai relationships, and it’s a fundamental part of Japanese martial arts.
The relationship between senpai and kohai is a lasting one. The two usually retain the same sort of relationship, even years after first establishing the relationship.
Where Does Sensei Fit In?
A common misconception is that the senpai acts the same way a sensei (先生), or teacher does. There are some similarities between a senpai and sensei, but there’s also a big difference between the two.
In a student/teacher dynamic, there’s a distinct difference between the two parties, and the contrast in experience, age, and/or wisdom should be clear.
The teacher is usually on another social level entirely, and likely won’t socialize with a student the same way a senpai and kohai interact.
It’s rare that a senpai ever becomes a proper teacher to his/her kohai although they usually, as I mentioned earlier, remain in the same sort of senpai/kohai relationship for many years to come.
There are some nuances to the senpai/kohai system, but this guide should give you enough of a general understanding to at least identify this relationship when you see it. Keep an eye out for the senpai/kohai relationship, and maybe you will even one day be a part of it!