What Does Senpai Mean? Usage in Japanese, Anime & English


What Does Senpai Mean? Usage in Japanese, Anime, and English Meaning 先輩 Sempai

The Japanese word senpai is not only an often-heard term in anime or manga, but it has also found its way into the English language. The popular meme “Notice me senpai” has sparked its usage in recent years, and so I decided to write a detailed blog post about what senpai means in Japanese, anime, and English.

The Japanese word senpai (先輩) means “senior”, “upperclassman”, or “mentor” in English and is used for people with a higher social status either because of their age, experience, or skill. Juniors called kohai (後輩) use the honorific to address more senior members regardless of their age and gender.

Are you wondering if senpai means crush? Do you want to know more about the meme “notice me senpai“? Or are you are looking for its counterpart kohai (後輩)? Below I have all the answers for you. Take a look at the other possible translations for the Japanese word senpai (先輩) and learn what it means in anime and in English.

What Does Senpai Mean in Japanese?

Senpai (先輩) is one of the common honorific titles that are used in Japanese to politely address or refer to someone in a conversation. It shows that the person has more experience, a higher position, status, or age than you, but also indicates their role as a mentor, tutor, or buddy for you and other juniors aka kohai (後輩).

That is why it is usually used to refer to an older or more senior member of the same company, school, club, association, or organization (source). While for strangers, guests, clients, and superiors, who do not offer you assistance, coaching, or mentorship, other polite honorifics such as san (さん) or sama (様) are more common.

In most cases, your senpai (先輩) will be someone older, but your senpai can also be younger than you. In general, if someone has entered the same school, workplace, club, or organization before you they are your senpai (senior) and you are their kohai (junior). Even when you are in fact the older person.

However, there is also a concept called “Jinsei no Senpai” (人生の先輩), which means that everyone who is older than you is your senpai in everyday life. So regardless of you being the kohai (junior), if you are older than your senpai they might call you senpai, too (source).

So in Japan you can call a person senpai (先輩) when they

  1. Have been a student, employee, or member for a longer time than you
  2. Are older than you (and hence have more life experience)
  3. Are someone you look up to because of their outstanding skills

In addition to treating them with respect and gratitude, you are also supposed to use honorific speech, called Keigo (敬語), when talking to them.

What Does Senpai Mean in Anime?

In anime and manga, senpai (先輩) is used in the same way as it is in daily Japanese and means “senior” or “upperclassman”. Juniors called kohai (後輩) use it with older or more experienced characters at work or at school. Sometimes it also indicates that they see the character as more than a friend.

What Does Senpai Mean in English?

The most common English translations for the Japanese word senpai (先輩) are “senior (at work or school)“, “upperclassman“, and “mentor“. However, it can also mean “superior”, “elder”, “older graduate”, “progenitor”, or “old-timer”. (please see online dictionaries such as Jisho or Wadoku for example).

Here’s a table showing all the possible English meanings and translations of the Japanese word senpai (先輩, senior). I have also added its counterparts kohai (後輩, junior) and sensei (先生, teacher) to illustrate the relationship and hierarchy between them.

先生senseiteacher, instructor, master
先輩senpaisenior (at work or school), superior, elder,
older graduate, progenitor, old-timer
後輩kohaijunior (at work, school, etc.), younger people,
younger student
Meaning and Translation of Sensei, Senpai & Kohai

The Japanese word senpai found its way into the English language through anime and manga. Especially the popular meme “Notice me senpai” and its other variations “Please notice me senpai“, “Senpai, why don’t you notice me?“, “I hope senpai will notice me“, etc.

The Meaning of “Notice me Senpai”

“Notice me senpai” and “I hope senpai will notice me” are memes inspired by anime and manga characters that are trying to get acknowledged by an upperclassman or an older person they greatly admire. In English, it is used when someone tries to get the attention of a celebrity or their secret crush.

In a lot of school-related stories and sometimes work-related ones you will come across an anime or manga character who has a crush on their upperclassman or more senior coworker. Usually, with desperate efforts, they try to get the person’s attention and make their senpai fall in love with them.

This kind of storyline is the origin of the popular meme and has sparked the usage of the Japanese word senpai in the English language. Nowadays it is still most commonly used in this context and in reference to anime and manga.

Does Senpai Mean Crush?

The Japanese word senpai (先輩) means “senior” or “upperclassman” but it can also be used for people you look up to or greatly admire. In anime and in the English language it is commonly used to refer to someone with whom you want to be friends or with whom you want to be more than just friends.

So while generally speaking the word senpai (先輩) does not mean “crush” in Japanese, it can imply that you have a romantic interest in someone. This is more so the case in anime than in real life, however.

In Japanese, it is quite common to use the word senpai for people you look up to. Either because of their work/life experience or skills. Most of the time it just means that the addressed person is older than you or started working at the same company or going to the same school before you.

Can You Call Your Boyfriend Senpai?

When your boyfriend is older than you or a student in a higher grade he is your senior and therefore also your senpai. However, the term senpai is usually reserved for people you have to address in a respectful manner at school or at work. It is more appropriate to call your partner by their name.

How to Use the Word Senpai in Japanese

There are two correct ways how you can use the word senpai (先輩) in Japanese. The first one is to add the honorific after a person’s first or last name, the other way is to address someone or refer to them just by calling them senpai.

For example, if the name of your senpai is Takumi Usui. You can either call him “Takumi-senpai” or “Usui-senpai” or just “senpai“. In anime, the first two seem to be more common especially when the character addresses or talks to the person directly.

However, when I talk to my three students who still attend high-school they often tell me that they ate Ramen with their senpai (senior) or that they went to see the tournament of their kohai (junior). They usually never mention their names.

first nameTatsuya-senpai
達也先輩
(my senior) Tatsuya
Lisa-senpai
リサ先輩
(my senior) Lisa
last nameIto-senpai
伊藤先輩
(my senior) Mrs. Ito
Smith-senpai
スミス先輩
(my senior) Mr. Smith
no namesenpai
先輩
(my) senior
How to Use Senpai (先輩) in Japanese

Senpai or Sempai: Which is Correct?

The correct spelling of the Japanese word senpai (先輩) is せんぱい (se-n-pa-i). However when pronounced it sounds more like “sempai” since the word flows more easily when you shift the “n” sound to an “m”. That is why in English, you will also find it commonly but incorrectly transcribed as “sempai”.

The misspelling also becomes evident if you take a look at the Japanese alphabet. Except for “n” all consonants are usually followed by a vowel. So we only have the sounds ma (ま), mi (み), mu (む), me (め), and mo (も) and n (ん), but no standalone “m”.

The Opposite of Senpai is “Kohai”

The term kohai (後輩, こうはい) is used in Japanese when you refer to someone who is younger than you or who has started working at the same company or going to the same school later than you. It means “junior” or “underclassman” and is the opposite of senpai (先輩, せんぱい), the Japanese word for “senior”.

Alex (RockinJapanese)

おはよう. I'm Alex. I have started studying Japanese when I was still a high school student and I have been living and working in Japan since 2015. I'm still learning new Japanese phrases and words every day and I thought that publishing them online will be useful for you, too. Hopefully, my study notes and free Japanese lessons will help you to reach the Japanese level you want to have! If you have any questions feel free to contact me anytime! Alex

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