You’ve probably heard the term senpai if you watch anime or read manga. It usually refers to someone who is older, such as a high school senior. However, the definition of senpai and the culture surrounding the phrase are more subtle and strongly ingrained in Japan’s social structure.
Senpai means “senior” and kohai means “junior” in Japanese. Senpai is someone at a higher level, whether in school, work, a sports club, or a social group. In theory, the sempai would act as mentors and assume responsibility for their kohai. The degree of that association, however, may vary depending on the setting in which the relationship takes place..
THE JAPANESE HIERARCHICAL SYSTEM
To completely comprehend what a senpai is, one must first comprehend the significance of hierarchy in Japanese society. This hierarchy was based on various sources, one of which being Confucianism. Along with Buddhism, Confucianism had a significant impact on Japan, and its impacts may still be found today. In Confucianism, society is founded on a hierarchical framework that determines a person’s function based on their place in society. The Confucian belief system is built on the pillars of filial affection, loyalty, and obedience.
Within a family, this means that lower-ranking members of the family submit to those in authority. This positions the father at the head of the family in a traditional Japanese home structure, followed by his eldest son. If he has more children, they will be listed in order of age, followed by the mother. The family’s women are listed in descending order of age.
Japan was a feudal nation founded on the conventional patriarchal structure during the Middle Ages. The emperor was at the apex of the social structure, followed by nobles and warriors. The feudal system became less significant when Japan entered the modern age, and the people established urban centers. Hierarchical systems, on the other hand, have never disappeared from society.
THE SENPAI – KOHAI RELATIONSHIP IN SCHOOL
This hierarchical system may still be found in many parts of Japanese culture today. We may first learn the meaning of senpai and how it connects to kohai in the educational system, as it is frequently represented in anime and manga.
It’s particularly common in sports groups and other extracurricular activities. Acting as an assistant and cleaning up are two of a kohai’s tasks. Kohai should greet their senpai first and address them with keigo, or honorific Japanese. Respect must be shown, and this includes obeying your sempai.
Now, one of the most common showcases for this tradition of relationships can be found in mordern memes: ‘notice me Senpai’. This meme is based on girls/guys romance anime who want to get the attention of the person they love. But because they are usually upper-classmen, they see themselves as people of ” inferior level to them” or their sempai as “out of their league”, and interacting with them looks a bit more complicated because of this hierarchy. The results are really comical in these situations portrayed by different anime.