What is Senpai? [Updated Definition, Meaning]

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This is an updated article to the original one, so be sure to check it out when you are done reading this one!

“Senpai” is a term that you most likely learned when you first started watching anime. It could have been in an office, a school, or a club, but at some point or another, you heard this term. Senpai literally means “earlier colleague” and its opposite is Kouhai which means “later colleague” Senpai is a referral to a social hierarchical system that is not only linguistically ingrained into Japanese people, but it has existed for centuries. Of course, historians cannot exactly point the line of it, but the commonly accepted notion is that the senpai and kouhai relationship comes from Confucian-era teaching where the end goal is cohesive unity. This social relationship promotes three things: respect for authority, respect for the chain of command, and respect for one’s elders. Now an elder can be someone a year older than you or 50 years older than you. If they have been in the space you been introduced to in longer, then they are the senpai and you are the kohai. Generally, speaking too, the concept of senpai/kouhai does not cross the boundaries of male-female. It certainly can, but it is only in extreme cases.

The senpai and kouhai relationship is actually something that exists outside of anime in real life. Many stereotypes such a tsundere, yandere, and other things that we may see in anime frequently do not exist, but this relationship does! A senpai can be, someone who is in a grade above you, someone whom you look up to that also is in power above you, or a boss or colleague that you work with who has worked there longer than you do. The only time this relationship can get awkward is when a new boss comes in and has to get his employees to respect him even though he is the kouhai! With this, and you will notice this in sports anime like Yowamushi Pedal, All OUT!!, Kuroko no Basuke, etc. is that when the person is in the role of the senpai, they can speak to their kouhai in any way they want to. But if a kouhai fails to use polite speech when talking to a senpai, you often see the senpai say something like “What did you just say?” and the kouhai is quick to fix their language. However, that is all you need to know on the matter because the Sonkeigo-Kenjougo-Teineigo conversation is a rabbit hole that you do not want to go down because it is long and boring. So what makes a senpai?

Senpai Should Be Able To Give Direction

Starting with the most obvious example, senpai need to give guidance to their kouhai. This comes mostly in a school setting more than anything else. A senpai is before anything else, a leader to his or her kouhai. A fantastic example of this is Takuya Sekizan from All Out!! Sekizan, never mind the hair that looks like it has paper curled up into it, along with the coach calls the shots for things like practice, drills, scrums, and he knows exactly who is going to do what and has not only the sense to lead, but the proper direction as well. When the coach orders hard drills for the whole team, and everyone seems exhausted after, it is Sekizan who says, we can keep going. Whether or not he understands every kouhai’s feelings in that moment or not, Sekizan understands what it takes to not only make a good team, but also cohesion for the group to succeed. Ever if he does not or someone does not want to do more drills, Sekizan as the leader understands that training is necessary to refine the team further.

Senpai, Above All Else, Support You

You might not realize it at first, but some of the boys from Watamote, Watashi ga Motete Dousunda make excellent examples of senpai. One, in particular, shines through with what it means to help others and support them. Asuma Mutsumi, who arguably is there for the ride, is a fantastic senpai to Kae Serinuma. Yes, he does have feelings for her and yes, he is still really hoping that she will choose him, but regardless of his feelings, he is willing to help Kae out with just about anything and everything. Need help at Comiket? Asuma is there. Need help purchasing stuff where you need to be two places at once? Asuma is there. Starving? Asuma is there. True, he does have feelings for Kae and to a certain extent, they do influence a bit of how he acts, but he is still able to selflessly put his feelings aside to assist her to the best of his ability when she needs him.

Senpai Should Be Relatively Good Leaders

Especially when they want to be the next fuhrer! The Roy Mustang that we know and love from Fullmetal Alchemist is a great example of what it means to be a good leader as a senpai, even if he is a slight womanizer. Roy Mustang knows how to play and at the same time, he knows how to get things done. Which is why when Riza Hawkeye is around most of the time, and whenever Havoc is too, Roy is cool, calm, collected, and giving out orders. You can always rely on Mustang to come through without even thinking about it and that is what makes him a good leader as a senpai takes care of his kouhai by trying to anticipate things. True, he is not perfect, but he is still a damn good leader when he needs to be. Plus he is packing some major firepower, so if you don’t listen to what he says, be prepared to get burned.

Senpai Show You The Ropes

Senpai are supposed to, since they were there in whatever situation you find yourself in, show you the ropes and how to do things. That could be how to play sports if you are joining an after school club, how to do something at work if you are new to work, or even, how to be a magical girl should the circumstances call for it. Mami Tomoe is the poster child senpai for how to be a good senpai and show you the ropes. When Madoka and Sayaka come into the magical girl world after being tricked by Kyuubei, Mami is the one that teaches the girls just how to be a magical girl. Mami shows them the ropes, and that is a. extremely dangerous in the universe that the story exists, but also b. extremely helpful in the universe that the story is set in. As a good senpai too, and this ties in with being a good leader as well, Mami does not sugarcoat anything. She tells Madoka and Sayaka exactly how things are in the universe for magical girls and teaches them how to accept the fate that they have been given. Mami works tirelessly to help the world, but tragically, as we all know, she meets her end too soon. However, she does meet her demise after helping Madoka and Sayaka. So while it is bittersweet and brief, Mami is a fantastic senpai from start to finish. Remember, a senpai is not supposed to be your friend. They are supposed to help you in your time of need.

Final Thoughts

Senpai can come across as a bit odd since, in the west, we do not have these social constructs nor ideas. Sure, we have the idea of someone being a senior or a junior to us, and some jobs can be defined as such, but they do not hold much more than the name. We don’t stress these relationships because often we do not need this added layer of social interaction. Now of course if you were say, a researcher and you were working with someone you respected, there is the mentor-protégé relationship, but that is often a path to succession or leading you out into the world. It is not something where you will be with that person constantly unless you two do actually work together, but even then, you will become independent and learn to handle things on your own.

However, the senpai is there to give you direction, help you out when you really need it, support you, and show you how things are done. You should never question a senpai unless their actions are that dubious as a senpai is never ever supposed to mistreat you. The only senpai character though that you should watch out for in life is someone who demands to be referred to as “senpai” or someone who demands that you treat them as someone above you. Those people are not looking out for you, but rather their own egos. Avoid them at all costs!

We hope that this update not only helped expand the scope of what a senpai can be, but also showed you more characters that you can identify as senpai within a series. Who is your favorite senpai character? Be sure to let us know down below! Tell next time,

Yowamushi-Pedal-New-Generation-wallpaper-1-507x500 What is Senpai? [Updated Definition, Meaning]


Author: Nagareboshi

American by birth; international by choice. I am trying to bring attention to one of my favorite causes; me. I translate by day and write by night. Aspiring polyglot. My dream would be to be the personal translator for Amuro Namie. Other than that, my hobbies include languages, weightlifting, sleeping, karaoke, GOOD coffee and music. When I’m not doing any of the above, I am most likely laughing hysterically at Willam Belli videos or EV farming. I ain’t gunna Rupologize for it neither. Waifu are Shirai Kuroko & Euaerin.

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Original Article Below

Yowamushi-Pedal-New-Generation-wallpaper-1-507x500 What is Senpai? [Updated Definition, Meaning]

Popura-senpai "Working"

The Japanese society is a society full of manners and politeness. Like other cultures, they do have certain titles for people and they use those titles as an honorific. While you are used to honorifics like "san," "kun," and "chan," you probably aren't as familiar with "senpai." If you've watched enough school life anime or manga, then you have definitely heard someone being referred to as "senpai".

"Senpai" is an honorific generally used to refer to an upperclassman. It's a little foreign to people in the west since we don't really use anything to indicate that someone is ahead of us, but in Japan, they do. Say you are a middle schooler, someone in high school would be your senpai, or if you are a freshman, a sophomore is your senpai. Unlike other honorifics, "senpai" an be used at the end of someone's name or it can be used as a title much like the way "sensei" is used.

"Senpai" isn't just used at school, though! It can also be used to refer to someone who has been working at your place of employment longer than you. If you've seen Servant x Service or Working, you will see this usage of "senpai". Isn't Taneshima Popura the cutest senpai?


Yowamushi-Pedal-New-Generation-wallpaper-1-507x500 What is Senpai? [Updated Definition, Meaning]

Kuran Kaname "Vampire Knite"

Western societies are not quite used to using honorifics as a sign of respect. As a child, you may assign an honorific to an adult, but as you get older and join the adult world, there is no need for that anymore. In Japanese society, however, this is not the case. Japanese people tend to continue using different honorifics depending on their relationship with that person. That can vary from respect, intimacy, or disrespect.

Referring to someone who is a grade ahead of you in school or above you at work as a senpai, is a sign of respect.

Role Model

Yowamushi-Pedal-New-Generation-wallpaper-1-507x500 What is Senpai? [Updated Definition, Meaning]

"Servant x Service" x "Working!"

If you're a fan of slice of life or school life anime, you can see that there is quite a lot of pride in being a senpai. Senpais are role models, someone that the underclassmen can look up to. There is a lot of emphasis on what it means to be a senpai.

Popura from Working is a good example because she feels a lot of pride in being a senpai even though she looks like a elementary school child. Popura took it upon herself to teach Takanashi Souta the basics of working in the restaurant. Although the training didn't go well, Popura is a proper senpai because she does a great job.

Let's look at Ichimiya Taishi from Servant x Service. Taishi's the senpai of the three main characters, but despite all of his years of experience, Hasebe Yutaka always points out Taishi's mistakes and somehow manages to top Taishi in every aspect-- And Yutaka looks for an excuse to take a break at every turn! Taishi is usually down on himself for it because he fails as a proper senpai. As you can see, it can be very important!

Senpai Complex

Yowamushi-Pedal-New-Generation-wallpaper-1-507x500 What is Senpai? [Updated Definition, Meaning]

Hori-senpai "Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun"

The Senpai Complex; I'm not actually sure if that is an actual term, but it is something I have noticed in many anime. There are many characters in anime that insist on being called "senpai." This is either due to some superiority complex in a few characters, a desire to be looked up to, or and insistence on proper manners. Well, there is also the moe aspect, but we'll talk about it later.

Some individuals opt not to call someone by the respectable term "senpai" for their own reasons, but that doesn't mean some won't insist on it. This is just a situation that I have seen often enough in anime. An example would be Kanisawa Kinu from Tsuyokiss who is a lolita, but insists that everyone call her kouhai.


Yowamushi-Pedal-New-Generation-wallpaper-1-507x500 What is Senpai? [Updated Definition, Meaning]

Honey-senpai "Ouran High School Host Club"

Yes, I'm bringing up how moe senpais are! It must be done. You just can't imagine how moe it is to have a senpai that you look up to. There's just something very exciting about it! Senpai are generally very serious or someone to be respected, but that's the allure of them! They can sometimes have a cold exterior that you just have to melt. Anyone out there agree that stoic types are moe?

A very popular type of senpai in anime are the shota or lolita senpai. What I mean is the senpai who is technically older but appears to be much younger than they actually are. Popura is an example of this senpai, but a very famous shota senpai would be Honey-senpai from Ouran High School Host Club! It's a great way at combining the shota/lolita aspect to someone who is older and thus, an actual possible romantic interest instead of a prepubescent child that society would frown upon. That is a big no-no in most societies.

Quite a few harems or reverse harems feature senpai characters. Not all of them are shota/lolita types. They can be quite cool and respected individuals, which isn't always the case for characters who are shotas or lolitas, as we can see with Honey who is treated like a child instead of the senpai that he is.

Let's not forget how moe it is to actually be a senpai and have someone look up to you in times of trouble. Having a cute kouhai is a pleasure, isn't it? There's a feeling of excitement when a cute kouhai looks up to you and calls you "senpai." It is most definitely moe! Although, not exactly an experience in western societies.


Yowamushi-Pedal-New-Generation-wallpaper-1-507x500 What is Senpai? [Updated Definition, Meaning]

Ichijou-senpai "Non Non Biyori"

I hope after reading this article, you have a better idea about what a senpai is. Though it is not a common idea in western societies, you can still enjoy senpais in anime, manga, or even video games. Is there a senpai in your life that you respect? Let me know your thoughts!

Yowamushi-Pedal-New-Generation-wallpaper-1-507x500 What is Senpai? [Updated Definition, Meaning]


Author: Jenangelx3

California based workaholic. Current mottos are “I don’t care” and “I’ll try almost anything once”. Interests include traveling, eating, video games, and weightlifting. Currently living life to the fullest, pursuing my happiness, and conquering my fears. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

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