The concepts of Senpai, Kohai and Sensei in The Japanese Culture

The concept of Sensei

 A Sensei, Sin Sang or Xiansheng is an honorific term shared in Chinese and Japanese honorifics that is translated as “person born before another”, so it is highly related to hierarchy. It is used after a person’s name, and means teacher. The word is also used as a title to refer to or address other professionals of authority or to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in any skill.

The concepts of Senpai versus kohai

In Japanese schools, from the early age, the senpai and kohai relation is taught to students as part of their daily life.

Senpai, which means “earlier colleague”, and kōhai meaning “later colleague” are terms  describing an informal and hierarchical relationship found in any kind of organizations, companies, businesses or even schools in Japan. The concept is based in Japanese philosophy way of life.

The relationship is interdependent between both roles, a senpai needs a kohai and vice versa, and establishes a deep bond determined by the date of entry to any organization, business company or wherever there is a community in which there is the need of hierarchy. The kohai has less seniority and experience than the senpai and speaks to the senpai using honorific language.

A senpai refers to the member of higher experience, hierarchy, level or age in an organization. A senpai offers assistance, friendship, counsel and mentoring to a new  member of the organization, who is known as the kohai. The kohai has to show gratitude, respect and personal loyalty thanking the senpai for the labour of mentoring and assistance. The Senpai acts at the same time as a friend.

These cultural relationships come from the era of Confucius, like the morals and ethics that arrived in Japan from ancient China. The senpai and kohai relation is based on a vertical hierarchy which gives importance to the respect for authority and for the chain of command. Any kind of internal competition is eliminated and reinforced by the unity of the organization.

This cultural communication and behavior system has allowed the transference of experience and knowledge from generation to generation as well as maintaining the philosophy of teaching alive. Besides, it allows the development of beneficial experiences between both senpai and kohai, as the kōhai benefits from the senpais knowledge and the senpai learns new experiences from the kōhai by way of developing a sense of responsibility.

At the international level the senpai and kohai relationship culture has spread through martial arts, in which the members of different levels are sorted by belt colour.

One of the most common examples where the senpai and kohai relation is applied in Japan is in schools. For instance, the oldest students in high schools show power as senpais. Kohais must even bow or salute their senpais when congratulated and senpais may punish kohais or treat them severely.

The main reason for these actions is that it is believed that team members can become good players only if they are submissive and follow the orders of the mentor, and therefore become a humble and responsible person in the future. Relations in Japanese schools also give more importance on the age rather than on the abilities of the students. The rules of superiority between a senpai and a kohai are analogous to the teacher–student relation, in which the age and experience of the teacher must be respected and never questioned.

The senpai and kohai relationship culture system is very often encountered within  Japanese businesses. The social relationships in Japanese businesses are regulated by two points: 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 relatively recently, employment in Japanese companies was guaranteed for life and thus employees never had to worry about losing their jobs.

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, while the senior employee sits next to an important guest in a position called kamiza, which means “better sit”. During meetings, most employees do not give their opinions, but listen and concur with their superiors, although they can express opinions with the prior consent of the employees of greater rank in the company.