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The Role of Senpai and Kōhai in the Japanese Workplace


You must be familiar with senpai and kōhai concepts if you watch school anime. Senpai-kōhai relationships exist in Japanese culture, not only in schools but also in workplaces. According to status, everyone has different roles to do. Understanding these can make you fit in better in your office.

The Terms Senpai and Kōhai

In Japanese culture, respect for seniority and hierarchy is deeply ingrained, and the senpai-kōhai relationship reflects it. The terms “senpai” and “kōhai” refer to a mentor-mentee relationship based on mutual respect and guidance. It can be found in many settings, such as schools, workplaces, organizations, and sports teams. This relationship is seen as a way to maintain discipline, order, and harmony within a group and pass on knowledge and skills from one generation to the next.

A “senpai” is someone more experienced or senior in a particular field or activity. This can refer to someone who has been at a job longer or has more expertise in a particular subject or skill. Senpai are typically seen as role models and are respected for their experience and knowledge.

On the other hand, a “kōhai” is someone less experienced or junior in a particular field or activity. kōhai look up to their senpai for guidance and advice and are expected to show respect and deference to them.

You can use “senpai” to call your superiors or attach it to their names, such as Tanaka-senpai. However, you can’t use kōhai as a suffix. Regarding honorific language use, the kōhai would use polite language when addressing their senpai, while the senpai would use more casual language when addressing their kōhai.

Senpai-Kōhai in Schools vs. Workplaces

The senpai-kōhai relationship can exist in both school and workplace settings, but there are some differences between the two.

In schools, the senpai-kōhai relationship is often more hierarchical and formal, with strict rules and expectations around behavior and respect. The relationship is typically based on seniority and age, with older students seen as senpai and younger students as kōhai. The senpai are expected to guide and support their kōhai, and the kōhai are expected to show respect and obedience to their senpai.

Japanese students

In the workplace, the senpai-kōhai relationship is often less formal and hierarchical and is based more on experience and expertise. Senpai are typically more experienced and knowledgeable workers who provide guidance and mentorship to their kōhai, who are newer or less experienced employees. The relationship is often more collaborative, with both parties working together to achieve common goals.

Additionally, while the senpai-kōhai relationship in school is often limited to the academic environment, the senpai-kōhai relationship in the workplace can extend beyond the workplace and include social and personal relationships.

The Role of Senpai in the Japanese Workplace

Senpai plays a vital role in guiding and mentoring their kōhai, who is a newer or less experienced worker. Here are some of the key roles that a senpai typically plays in the workplace:

  • Providing guidance and support

One of the most important roles of a senpai is to provide guidance and support to their kōhai. This can include sharing their knowledge and expertise, giving feedback and advice on work-related issues, and helping the kōhai navigate challenging situations.

  • Serving as a role model

The senpai also serves as a role model for their kōhai. By demonstrating a solid work ethic, a commitment to excellence, and a willingness to learn and grow, the senpai can inspire the kōhai to strive for their own personal and professional goals.

  • Sharing institutional knowledge

The senpai typically has a deeper understanding of the company culture, policies, and procedures. They can share this knowledge with their kōhai to help them understand how the company operates and how to navigate the workplace.

  • Encouraging professional development

A senpai can also play a key role in encouraging their kōhai’s professional development. They can identify areas where the kōhai needs to improve and provide guidance on how to do so. Additionally, the senpai can help the kōhai set goals and develop a plan for achieving them.

  • Fostering a positive workplace culture

The senpai can help foster a positive workplace culture by promoting values such as respect, loyalty, and a commitment to personal and professional growth. By modeling these values and encouraging others to do the same, the senpai can help create a supportive and collaborative work environment.

The Role of Kōhai in the Japanese Workplace

While the senpai plays an important role in guiding and mentoring the kōhai, the kōhai also has responsibilities and roles to play in the workplace. Here are some of the critical roles of a kōhai:

  • Learning from the senpai

The kōhai’s primary role is to learn from their senpai. This can include learning about the company culture, policies, and procedures and gaining knowledge and skills related to their job responsibilities. The kōhai should be open to receiving feedback and guidance from their senpai and be willing to learn from their experiences.

  • Asking questions

The kōhai should not be afraid to ask questions if they do not understand something. This can help them better understand their job responsibilities and the company’s operations.

  • Contributing new perspectives and ideas

While the kōhai may be less experienced than their senpai, they can still contribute to the workplace by offering fresh perspectives and ideas. By sharing their own experiences and knowledge, the kōhai can help drive innovation and contribute to the company’s growth.

  • Demonstrating a strong work ethic

The kōhai can demonstrate their commitment to their job by being punctual, reliable, and attentive to their work. That way, they can earn the respect of their senpai and colleagues and create a positive impression in the workplace.

  • Supporting their senpai

The kōhai can also play a role in supporting their senpai. For example, they can assist with tasks, provide feedback and advice when appropriate, and be attentive to their senpai’s needs.

Senpai-Kōhai vs. Mentor-Mentee

The senpai-kōhai relationship in Japanese culture can be compared to the mentor-mentee relationship in Western cultures. Both relationships involve a more experienced person providing guidance and support to a less experienced person.

However, there are some key differences between the two relationships. In the senpai-kōhai relationship, there is a strong emphasis on respect and hierarchy, with the senpai being seen as a role model and the kōhai expected to show deference and obedience. In contrast, the mentor-mentee relationship is often more egalitarian, with both parties seen as equals working together towards a common goal.

Senpai and kōhai respect each other

Additionally, the senpai-kōhai relationship is often more focused on passing on traditional knowledge and values. In contrast, the mentor-mentee relationship is often more focused on career development and achieving specific goals. Despite these differences, both relationships can be valuable for personal and professional growth and help individuals learn new skills and navigate challenging situations.


The senpai-kōhai relationship can help build positive relationships within the company, creating a strong bond of mutual respect and trust, and providing opportunities for the kōhai to develop their career. These benefits can ultimately lead to increased innovation and productivity in the workplace. Therefore, doing your roles, whether as a senpai or kōhai, means contributing to the success of yourself and the company.





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