The Meaning of Kouhai: What It Is and How To Use It

Have you ever wondered what the Japanese term kouhai means? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the Japanese word kouhai, including its translation and definition, usage, examples, and more!

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What does the Japanese word kouhai mean? What is the difference between senpai and kouhai? What is the senpai-kouhai system?

According to SK Desu, Kouhai and Senpai are two different treatment fees based on status and hierarchy within Japanese society. Japanese people use these words with affection and as signs of appreciation, not to make anyone feel inferior. 

Kohai or kouhai mean the equivalent of the word “freshmen” or “first-years” in English. Synonyms for kouhai could also include junior, underclassman, or other words referring to younger people. Kouhai is generally used to refer to a younger, more novice or inexperienced person. In Japan, this is not used as a derogatory term, and kohai have a great relationship with senpai in a senpai-kohai system. The kanji form of kouhai is represented as 後輩. Urban Dictionary states that a kouhai could also be someone who is in the same industry, but in a more junior or inexperienced role. According to Chuunibyou, kohai must speak properly using keigo, which is a system of three different languages meant to be used to speak respectfully with others.

A senpai is equivalent to the English terms veteran, tutor or leader in Japanese culture. This is used to refer to older members of society who are more experienced, like someone who is a mentor or more senior. This is a term of respect for a parent, graduate, or upperclassman, like someone who is a third-year or above in high school. The term senpai is represented by the kanji 先 – 輩. The first character represents the future, front, old, or first. The second represents father, comrade, or companion. This literally translates to an experienced companion. In Japan, a person would never call themselves a senpai. It is a recognition that others bestow, and must be earned.

While most Japanese honorifics are usually used as a suffix, senpai and kouhai can be used as nicknames without mentioning the person’s first name beforehand. In general, a senpai will address a kohai by their first or last name followed by the suffix -kun. A kouhai will address a senpai by their name with the suffixes -senpai or -san. 

A senpai will show compassion toward a kohai by being compassionate and allowing the kouhai to explore their feelings. This person acts as a mentor because they have likely already been through similar things that a kouhai has been through. In the example of a high school, a senpai senior has already taken the classes a kouhai freshman has, so they will be able to offer advice and relate to what the kouhai is going through. In martial arts, a senpai would be a black belt who is chosen to help lower level students.

What is the origin of the word kouhai? Where is kouhai commonly used?

According to Puni Puni Japan, the concept of the senpai-kouhai relationship has roots in Confucian teaching. Confucius created this strict age system, but it has since been changed to the Japanese custom, per Medium.

In an anime or manga, there are lots of senpai-kohai relationships. A lot of the time, younger characters refer to older students as senpai. In some of these cases, the senpai do not live up to their roles and act ignorant or contemptible. This is a common conflict in many anime and manga. The phrase “notice me senpai” has become a bit of a meme in popular culture, from kohai students wishing for attention or approval from their senpai. This phrase has emerged from anime and manga. 

There are many examples of senpai-kouhai relationships in anime and manga. According to Anime Planet and TV Tropes, all of the below anime series and many others showcase different senpai-kouhai relationships.

  • Rascal Does Not Dream of a Dreaming Girl
  • Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai
  • Clannad: Another World, Tomoyo Chapter
  • Bloom Into You
  • Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out!
  • The Tyrant Falls In Love
  • Seitokaichou ni Chuukoku
  • Magical Sempai
  • My Friend’s Little Sister Has It In for Me!
  • Sasaki and Miyano
  • Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! 2
  • Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro
  • Pokémon
  • Beelzebub
  • Beyond the Boundary
  • Super Dimension Fortress Macross
  • Robotech
  • Evangelion
  • Mario Watches Over Us
  • Excel Saga
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!
  • Digimon
  • Dorohedoro
  • Code Geass
  • Naruto
  • Yu Yu Hakuso
  • Minami-ke
  • Azumanga Daioh
  • Strawberry Panic!
  • Negima! Magister Negi Magi
  • Lyrical Nanoha
  • The Prince of Tennis
  • Rurouni Kenshin
  • Ghost in the Shell
  • Burn Up Scramble
  • Ouran High School Host Club
  • Hetalia: Axis Powers
  • Waiting in the Summer
  • Love Live!
  • Sekai-ichi Hatsukoi

There is even a podcast called Senpai & Kouhai: An Otaku Podcast where the hosts Steven and Trea talk about numerous anime-related topics. This podcast is available on Apple Podcasts and has a rating of 4.5 stars.

What are other Japanese honorifics?

There are many other honorifics one can use in Japanese. These are usually used as suffixes, and are listed below from Go Go Nihon.

  • Sama – The most formal, used for customers, gods, or guests.
  • San – The most common honorific used between equals.
  • Kun – A male honorific, used by superiors to address people of lesser status.
  • Chan – A female honorific, which adds a sense of cuteness. This is only to be used between people who are very familiar with each other.

Overall, a kouhai is someone who is more junior or noive, compared to a senpai who is more experienced or veteran. These words are used in combination with each other to form a senpai-kohai relationship, which is similar to a tutor-student relationship in English, or the relationship that a “big” might have with their “little” in a sorority or fraternity.