Senpai Kohai

Senpai and Kōhai Relationships in Japanese Culture

Japan is said to have a homogeneous society, which means the quality or state of being of a similar kind or of having a uniform structure or composition. Japanese people have a strong sense of group and national identity with hierarchical relationships. The older generation in Japan is given respect for their experiences in life. This is evident in households and more so in schools and companies.

The senpai (“senior”) and kōhai (“junior”) relationships in organizations, businesses, schools, associations, and clubs represent a sort of informal hierarchical interpersonal relationship. This concept was derived from Confucian teachings and has eventually become part of Japanese culture.Senior businessman and young executive bowing

Understanding the senpai–kōhai system

The senpai–kōhai system is deeply ingrained in Japanese history with three important elements that greatly impacted its development.

  • Confucianism – this belief system arrived from China between the 6th and 9th century. Neo-Confucianism became the official doctrine of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867) and brought deep social changes to Japan. Chinese Confucianism teachings like loyalty and respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors were well accepted by the Japanese and were observed in everyday life. The idea of loyalty was taken as loyalty to a feudal lord or the Emperor.
  • Traditional family system – this family system also regulated by Confucian codes had the father as a male head, had absolute power over the family, and the eldest son inherited the family property. The father held the power because he was the one who was educated and was perceived to have ethical knowledge. Japanese society revered superiors and it was considered a virtue. The wife and children had to obey the system.

Illustrations of the Ladies' Classic of Filial Piety from the Song dynasty (960-1279).Illustrations of the Ladies’ Classic of Filial Piety from the Song dynasty (960-1279).

  • Civil Code of 1898 – this code strengthened the rules of privilege of seniority reinforcing the traditional family system. The code gave clear definitions of hierarchical values within the family called koshusei (“family-head system”). The head of the household had the right to command his family and the eldest son inherited that position. In 1947, these statutes were abolished at the end of World War II. However, the ideals still remain in Japanese society.

The senpai-kōhai relationship

The senpai-kōhai relationship is interdependent. Senpai refers to someone with higher level, hierarchy, age, or experience in an organization, who offers assistance or counsel to another who is less experienced, known as kōhai. The Kōhai must then demonstrate gratitude, loyalty, and respect to the senpai. The kōhai defers to the senpai’s experience and seniority and speaks to the senpai using honorific language. The relationship is similar to mentorship.