What is Kouhai? [Definition, Meaning]

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Sherlock got Watson, Batman has his Robin and every senpai needs a kouhai. Everyone seems to love a good-looking and charismatic senpai, but often oversee his equally important counterpart: the younger, less experienced and often clueless kouhai.

Some of you might think that the senpai/kouhai relationship is all about utter admiration and unrequited feelings. While this might be true for some pairings, there is much more to these relationships than you’d think. In fact, adding hierarchy to a relationship is a great way to create some dynamic in an otherwise boring storyline. Respect, responsibility and friendship are just some of the factors that play into how senpai and kouhai interact with each other.

A kouhai’s first responsibility is to respect his or her senpai. This leads back to Japanese culture which is structured in a vertical hierarchy – everyone above you needs to be respected, it’s as simple as that. But don’t think now that a senpai doesn’t have any responsibilities of his own. A proper senpai will take care of his kouhai and guide him in his studies, at work or simply in life. So in a sense we are looking at a partnership between two people that has lots of potential for drama, love interests and hilarious situations.

To dig a little bit deeper into the definition of kouhai we want to introduce you to some of our favorite kouhai characters in anime. Hopefully you’ll see that there is more to them than whiny high school girls trying to get noticed. Everyone looking for a new favorite senpai won’t be disappointed as well; after all, what would a kouhai be without his senpai?

Kouhai at school

The first category of kouhai is probably the most well-known one: kouhai at school. Here, the hierarchy is obvious since all students are supposed to respect their upperclassmen. These kouhai are especially prone to developing feelings for their senpai, since they are older, seem to have everything figured out and are the kings and queens of the school.

Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun (Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun)

  • Episodes: 12
  • Aired: July 2014 - September 2014

Our first kouhai is Chiyo from Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun who is everything you’d expect a kouhai to be: innocent, excited, gullible and committed to always give her best.

So it should come as no surprise that she takes up the courage to confess her feelings to Umetarou Nozaki, her mysterious and cool high school crush. He, however, is as oblivious as only a guy can be and thinks she is a fan of his Shoujo mangas. But that won’t stop our energetic Chiyo and she decides to become Nozaki’s assistant in order to make him realize her feelings. Let’s see how that will work out for her.

In this anime you get to see how senpai/kouhai relationships work for students. At school, Nozaki, Mikoto and Chiyo attend the same grade which puts them eye to eye. However, when it comes to Nozaki’s work the guys are clearly more experienced than Chiyo. This gives them the right to command the girl around and leave all the tedious tasks like buying coffee or cleaning up to her. In a way, schools are very unique environments with their own rules and hierarchy systems that do not necessarily have to translate into the student’s private lives.

If you want to see a stereotypical kouhai character, especially combined with a high school setting, then you should check out Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun. Not only will it teach you more about Japanese hierarchy, but also entertain you with its hilarious jokes.

Kouhai at work

Graduating from college doesn’t mean your kouhai days are finally over. On the contrary, once you join a company your climb up the social ladder starts all over again. There will be new senpai, new struggles and a lot more tasks that fall to you as a newcomer. Let’s meet a kouhai working at an extraordinary workplace, shall we?

Working!! (Wagnaria!!)

  • Episodes: 13
  • Aired: April 2010 - June 2010

Working!! is one of the most well-known Slice of Life shows when it comes to depicting the everyday struggles of a crazy workplace. Thankfully, main character and lover of everything cute and adorable Takanashi seems to fit right in.

This story is set in a typical family restaurant in the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan. The setting is however the only thing that is typical about this show since the main cast is as diverse and unique as they come. We have a waitress who is terrified of men, a violent manager, a woman wearing a katana and a 17-year-old girl with a height complex. Does Takanashi have what it takes to join their world?

Since Takanashi is the newest staff member he obviously has to adapt to his new situation and learn all the tricks and tips of his coworkers. Especially at the beginning of the anime you get to see how a senpai is supposed to mentor his kouhai and teach him everything he needs to know. That not only includes whatever Takanashi needs to know about being a server, but especially everything he needs to know about his eccentric coworkers.

What makes this story so interesting though is the hilarious relationship between Takanashi and Popura. Due to her experience she is obviously his senpai, but that is about everything that Takanashi respects about her since Popura is a short high school student who looks more like a small kid than a girl who is about to graduate. Comedy is ensured and you, as a viewer, get to realize that some senpai/kouhai relationships are more complicated than others.

Kouhai in life

Schools and companies make it easy to categorize between kouhai and senpai. But there are situations where no one gives you the official title of kouhai, yet you still know that there are people who you need to respect. Usually this hierarchy comes down to who has more experience and who can teach you something valuable. So let’s introduce one more kouhai character who will show you that there are senpai in all parts of life, even in magic.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica)

  • Episodes: 12
  • Aired: January 2011 - April 2011

All fans of dark shows with unexpected twists and turns should already know about this little gem. If not, you are definitely missing out on a great show.

Madoka Kaname is your typical school girl: she loves her family, enjoys spending time with her friends and keeps wondering about what her future will look like. But everything changes when new people step into her life. The first one is Homura Akemi, a mysterious transfer student. The second one is Kyuubey, a mythical being who promises Madoka to fulfill her deepest wish. And the last one is Mami Tomoe, a magical girl who will soon become Madoka’s teacher and mentor.

You could argue that being a magical girl is a profession and Madoka should therefore be included in the previous category. But it is not simply the techniques of hunting witches that Mami teaches Madoka and her friend Miki. She wants to show them her world and make them understand what they have to give up in order to become like her. In a way, Mami teaches Madoka more about life than any of her teachers ever have.

Also, even though Madoka understands that Mami has a lot to teach her, she also knows that there are things she needs to do by herself. This is the best case scenario where a kouhai will first listen to all the advice he or she is given and then go on to make independent decisions. There is a point where every kouhai needs to let go and do his or her own things. Madoka shows the transformation of being thrown into a world she knows nothing about to becoming better than her senpai has ever been. A truly outstanding kouhai.

Final Thoughts

Kouhai aren’t that boring after all, right? As we’ve mentioned in the beginning, kouhai are often overlooked even though they are as interesting as senpai characters. On our short list alone you could see that they come in all shapes and sizes and can range from being overly excited and committed to their superiors to being quiet and reflecting on everything they’re being taught.

This article just barely scratches the surface of all the different aspects of senpai/kouhai relationships, but we hope you could get a better understanding of what it means to be a kouhai. Anime are a great way to get an insight into Japanese culture and today’s examples can show you a little bit more about hierarchies in Japanese society. But enough about cultural studies, let us know what you thought of our list!

Did you enjoy our kouhai characters or did we leave out your favorite one? Share your opinions in the comment section down below.

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Author: Cornelia Wagner

Coffee enthusiast, world traveler and writer at heart. Left Europe to live and study in the insanity called Tokyo.

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