In Japan, the senpai-kohai system underlies nearly all relationships. Although there is no exact translation into English, senpai (先輩) means an upperclassman, senior employee or other older person with whom you have dealings. Conversely, kohai (後輩) is the junior or lower person. Who is senpai and who is kohai is determined by age and rank, which in Japan are often the same thing. This system permeates Japanese society.
It’s adhered to in schools, offices, clubs, organizations and almost any other group setting. The degree varies depending on the type of group. While it is strict in schools and workplaces, you might have, for example, a golf senpai. This is the person who is older than you and has been playing longer than you. They usually clean the course with your behind. I even see the system in place sometimes in the punk rock scene. A band that has been around a long time is the senpai band to younger bands coming up in the scene.
The senpai-kohai division starts in junior high school and is especially important in club activities, since this is where kids of different grades mix the most. The younger kids have to do the menial jobs like fetching the older kids’ baseballs. They have to learn from the ground up, watching their senpai and cheering them on for a great deal of time before they’re allowed to play.
A two-way street
The senpai-kohai system is actually more than just a rank where the older members get special privileges. It’s a mentor system where the senpai have to teach the kohai. Senpai are responsible for their younger members and they’re supposed to take this responsibility seriously. However, they have a closer relationship than that of teacher and student because they’re closer in age. There may be no more than one year’s difference.
As you might imagine, the kohai treats the senpai with deference. At drinking gatherings, kohai pours senpai‘s beers and probably isn’t allowed to stop drinking and go home until senpai decides the party is over. In the stricter schools, kohai students move to the side of the hallway when senpai pass, and this isn’t for fear of getting your face shoved into a locker but out of genuine respect (and okay, probably a bit of fear as well).
It seems unfair, but the respect goes both ways. It’s Confucian like that. If a kohai screws up and embarrasses the group, the senpai feel just as responsible. Although senpai may and sometimes do abuse their lower ranking peers, they are expected to show the young’uns a level of respect.
How kohai attain senpai-hood
Since the system is based on age, the roles never switch. If a person is once your senpai, they’re always your senpai. A kohai doesn’t one day attain senpai-hood over his senpai, or even equal status. But next year, a new batch of kohai come along and this is where kohai become senpai.
Cover photo by Jason Bonitsky