Senpai (先輩, "earlier colleague") and kōhai (後輩, "later
colleague") are terms from the
Japanese language describing an
informal hierarchical interpersonal relationship found in
organizations, associations, clubs, businesses, and schools in Japan.
The concept is based in
Japanese philosophy and has permeated Japanese
The relationship is an interdependent one, as a senpai requires a
kōhai and vice versa, and establishes a bond determined by the date
of entry to an organization. The kōhai defers to the senpai's
seniority and experience, and speaks to the senpai using honorific
6 See also
7.1 Works cited
The relationship is an interdependent one, as a senpai requires a
kōhai and vice versa, and establishes a bond determined by the
date of entry to an organization. Senpai refers to the member of
higher experience, hierarchy, level, or age in the organization who
offers assistance, friendship, and counsel to a new or inexperienced
member, known as the kōhai, who must demonstrate gratitude, respect,
and occasionally personal loyalty. The Senpai acts at the same
time as a friend. This relation is similar to the interpersonal
relation between tutor and tutored in Eastern culture, but differs in
that the senpai and kōhai must work in the same organization.
The relation originates in Confucian teaching, as well as the morals
and ethics that have arrived in
Japan from ancient China and have
spread throughout various aspects of Japanese philosophy. The
senpai–kōhai relation is a vertical hierarchy (like a father–son
relation) that emphasizes respect for authority, for the chain of
command, and for one's elders, eliminating all forms of internal
competition and reinforcing the unity of the organization.
Over time this mechanism has allowed the transfer of experience and
knowledge, as well as the expansion of acquaintances, to maintaining
the art of teaching alive. It also allows the development of
beneficial experiences between both, as the kōhai benefits from the
senpai's knowledge and the senpai learns new experiences from the
kōhai by way of developing a sense of responsibility. This
comradeship does not imply friendship; a senpai and kōhai may become
friends, but such is not an expectation.
The Korean terms seonbae and hubae are written with the same Chinese
characters and indicate a similar senior–junior relationship. The
terms may have derived from Japanese, and may have had Chinese
origins, though the senpai–kōhai relationship does not exist in
Chinese culture. However, it is close to the system of sifu
-student system of Chinese martial arts.
Demonstrating the use of the naginata at a sports festival in
Hamamatsu in 1911. Discipline training in school clubs historically
has influence the senpai–kōhai system with students.
The senpai–kōhai system has existed since the beginning of Japanese
history. Three elements have had a significant impact on its
development: Confucianism, the traditional Japanese family system, and
the Civil Code of 1898.
Confucianism arrived from China between the 6th and 9th centuries, but
the derived line of thought that brought about deep social changes in
Japan was Neo-Confucianism, which became the official doctrine of the
Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867). The precepts of loyalty and filial
piety as tribute (朝貢 chōkō) dominated the Japanese at the time,
as respect for elders and ancestor worship that Chinese Confucianism
taught were well accepted by the Japanese, and these influences have
spread throughout daily life. Like other Chinese influences, the
Japanese adopted these ideas selectively and in their own manner, so
that the "loyalty" in
Confucianism was taken as loyalty to a feudal
lord or the Emperor.
The Japanese family system (家 ie) was also regulated by Confucian
codes of conduct and had an influence on the establishment of the
senpai–kōhai relation. In this family system the father, as male
head, had absolute power over the family and the eldest son inherited
the family property. The father had power because he was the one to
receive an education and was seen to have superior ethical knowledge.
Since reverence for superiors was considered a virtue in Japanese
society, the wife and children had to obey it. In addition to the
hereditary system, only the eldest son could receive his father's
possessions, and neither the eldest daughter nor the younger children
received anything from him.
The last factor influencing the senpai–kōhai system was the Civil
Code of 1898, which strengthened the rules of privilege of seniority
and reinforced the traditional family system, giving clear definitions
of hierarchical values within the family. This was called koshusei
(戸主制, "family-head system"), in which the head of the household
had the right to command his family and the eldest son inherited that
position. These statutes were abolished in 1947, after the surrender
Japan at the end of World War II. These ideals nevertheless
remained during the following years as a psychological influence in
The seniority rules are reflected in various grammatical rules in the
Japanese language. A person who speaks respectfully to a superior uses
honorific language (敬語 keigo), which is divided into three
Sonkeigo (尊敬語, "respectful language"): used to denote respect
towards a superior with or of whom one speaks, including the actions,
objects, characteristics, and persons related to this person.
Kenjōgo (謙譲語, "humble language"): in contrast to sonkeigo, with
kenjōgo the speaker shows respect to a superior by lowering or
deprecating him or herself.
Teineigo (丁寧語, "polite language"): differs from the other two in
that the speaker shows only to the speaker rather than those being
spoken about. Use of the verb desu ("to be") and the verb ending -masu
are examples of teineigo.
Sonkeigo and kenjōgo have expressions (verbs, nouns, and special
prefixes) particular to the type of language; for example, the
ordinary Japanese verb for "to do" is suru, but in sonkeigo is nasaru
and in kenjōgo is itasu.
Another rule in the hierarchical relation is the use of honorific
suffixes of address. A senpai addresses a kōhai with the suffix -kun
after the kōhai's given name or surname, regardless if the kōhai is
male or female. A kōhai similarly addresses a senpai with the suffix
-senpai or -san; it is extremely unusual for a kōhai to refer to a
senpai with the suffix -sama, which indicates the highest level of
respect to the person spoken to.
At the international level the senpai–kōhai relation has spread
through martial arts, in which the members of different kyū and dan
levels are sorted by belt colour.
One place the senpai–kōhai relation applies to its greatest extent
Japan is in schools. For example, in junior and senior high schools
(especially in school clubs) third-year students (who are the oldest)
demonstrate great power as senpais. It is common in school sports
clubs for new kōhais to have to perform basic tasks such as
retrieving balls, cleaning playing fields, taking care of equipment,
and even wash elder students' clothes. They must also bow to or salute
their senpais when congratulated, and senpais may punish
kōhais or treat them severely.
The main reason for these humble actions is that it is believed that
team members can become good players only if they are submissive,
obedient, and follow the orders of the trainer or captain, and thus
become a humble, responsible, and cooperative citizen in the future.
Relations in Japanese schools also place a stronger emphasis on the
age than on the abilities of students. The rules of superiority
between a senpai and a kōhai are analogous to the teacher–student
relation, in which the age and experience of the teacher must be
respected and never questioned.
The senpai–kōhai relation is weaker in universities, as students of
a variety of ages attend the same classes; students show respect to
older members primarily through polite language (teineigo). Vertical
seniority rules nevertheless prevail between teachers based on
academic rank and experience.
The senpai–kōhai system also prevails in Japanese businesses. The
social environment in Japanese businesses is regulated by two
standards: the system of superiority and the system of permanent
employment. The status, salary, and position of employees depend
heavily of seniority, and veteran employees generally take the highest
positions and receive higher salaries than their subordinates. Until
the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, employment was guaranteed for
life and thus such employees did not have to worry about losing their
The senpai–kōhai relation is a cornerstone in interpersonal
relations within the Japanese business world; for example, at meetings
the lower-level employee should sit in the seat closest to the door,
called shimoza (下座, "lower seat"), while the senior employee
(sometimes the boss) sits next to some important guest in a position
called kamiza (上座, "upper seat"). During meetings, most employees
do not give their opinions, but simply listen and concur with their
superiors, although they can express opinions with the prior consent
of the employees of greater rank and influence in the company.
Outside Japan, the senpai–kōhai relation is often found in the
teaching of Japanese martial arts, though misunderstandings arise due
to lack of historical knowledge, and as the vertical social hierarchy
Japan does not exist in Western cultures.
Despite the senpai–kōhai relation's deep roots in Japanese society,
there have been changes since the end of the 20th century in academic
and business organizations. Kōhais no longer show as much respect to
the experience of their senpais, the relation has become more
superficial, and the age factor has begun to lose importance. The
student body has diversified with Japanese students who have spent a
large part of their lives overseas and have returned to Japan, as well
as foreign students without a mentality rooted in the Japanese
The collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s caused a high
level of unemployment, including the laying off of high-ranked
employees. Companies since then first began to consider employees'
skills rather than age or length of service with the company, due to
which many long-serving employees lost their positions over being
incapable of fulfilling expectations. Gradually many companies have
had to restructure their salary and promotion systems, and seniority
has thus lost some influence in Japanese society.
Attitudes towards the senpai–kōhai system vary from appreciation
for traditions and the benefits of a good senpai–kōhai
relationship; to reluctant acquiescence; to antipathy. Those who
criticize the system find it arbitrary and unfair, that senpais were
often pushy, and that the system results in students who are shy or
afraid of standing out from the group. for example, some kōhais fear
that if they outperform their senpais in an activity, their senpai
will lose face, for which kōhais must apologize. In some cases, the
relation is open to violence and bullying. Most Japanese people—even
those who criticize it—accept the senpai–kōhai system as
common-sense aspect of society, straying from which will have
inevitably negative social consequences.
Etiquette in Japan
Honne and tatemae
^ a b Blomberg 1994, p. 203.
^ a b c Kodansha 1994, p. 310.
^ a b Matsumoto 2005, pp. 1480–1481.
^ a b c d Davies & Ikeno 2002, p. 187.
^ Kopp 2010.
^ Panek 2006, p. 135.
^ Hassell 1983, p. 61.
^ Rubio, Brody & Castrogiovanni 2008, p. 37.
^ Brinton 2001, p. 159.
^ Sechiyama 2013, p. 169.
^ Davies & Ikeno 2002, p. 188.
^ Davies & Ikeno 2002, pp. 188–189.
^ a b c Davies & Ikeno 2002, p. 189.
^ a b c Matsuura & Porta Fuentes 2002, p. 261.
^ Matsuura & Porta Fuentes 2002, p. 262.
^ Matsuura & Porta Fuentes 2002, pp. 263–265.
^ Matsuura & Porta Fuentes 2002, pp. 115–116.
^ a b Sugimoto 2003, p. 132.
^ a b c d Davies & Ikeno 2002, p. 191.
^ Davies & Ikeno 2002, p. 192.
^ Lowry 2002, pp. 28, 122.
^ McVeigh 2015, pp. 220–224.
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Japanese social concepts and values
Honne and tatemae
Japanese political values
Mono no aware
Types of people
Senpai and kōhai
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