Anyone who’s watched a bit of anime will have heard of the kohai and senpai relationship, and Japanese culture fans online often automatically think of the “Notice me, senpai!” trope from many a high school anime. It’s important to know that while this trope is just that, a simple entertainment cliché, there is some mild truth behind the clichés.
A kohai is expected to show deference to a senpai. A senpai is expected to offer guidance to their kohai.
The fact is that the kohai/senpai relationship is foundational to many hierarchical structures in Japan, and having a good understanding of why and how they work will make your life in a Japanese company simpler to deal with.
What’s It All About?
At a fundamental level, this is simply an expression of superiority/inferiority. The senpai is the older, more experienced person than the kohai, and thus deserves more respect and privilege than the kohai. At the same time, the senpai is expected to offer guidance and assistance to the kohai. This holds true from school years through working life, and even beyond. Once a senpai, always a senpai is a pretty good way to put it. Even a fully grown adult will bow to a senpai’s will in things like clubs, volunteer groups, neighborhood associations and more.
Keep in mind, of course, that these are generalities. There are individual people who ignore these societal patterns, some who pay only the slightest attention, and others who let it go to their heads and act like their position as senpai offers them immense authority. As always, generalizations fall apart when you get to real interpersonal relationships.
In The Workplace
So, with that general understanding, what can we say about senpai/kohai in the workplace? It’s going to depend a lot on the size and structure of your office, but in many cases, a senpai acts like an informal manager. A senpai can help with basic training, offer advice for dealing with coworkers and bosses, or even be responsible for keeping a kohai on track in projects.
As kohai, an employee should then recognize that relationship and might want direct inquiries or problems to a senpai rather than a manager. They should then be ready to follow recommendations and (sometimes) orders from that senpai as if they came from management. There is also a certain amount of deference and respect due to senpai, simply as someone who is higher in rank, but it’s also important to remember this is not licensed for abuse.
The biggest thing is to think of a senpai as someone ready to help, and as such someone worth building a good relationship with. A little effort in making some bonds with a senpai almost always pays off.
However, a senpai is not an official manager. They shouldn’t overstep bounds by making serious demands for a kohai’s time. If you find yourself feeling overburdened by a senpai’s demands, and they’re not listening to your input on that, it might be a good idea to discuss it with your boss or with HR.
Outside of the Workplace
In private life, senpai/kohai relationships take on a slightly different tenor. Work senpais often pay for meals or drinks when out socializing with work kohai, but the kind of managerial superiority takes back seat to a more protective role. A good senpai will want to make sure a kohai is settling in well and be there to smooth over difficulties both private and work-related.
The same is often true of senpai in clubs and other organizations. If you join a team, senior members often will try to teach and train along with the official leader or teacher. The senpai’s role should include moral support as well. Again, none of this is absolute, and in many cases, it doesn’t happen like this, but in general, you can expect to experience some degree of this in many situations.
Senpai/kohai relationships in their best incarnations are more like the kind of idealized sibling relationships we hear about in movies and books. The protector and the protected, the mentor and the mentee, the guide and the guided. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter a helpful person in your own life to help get you through the many challenges to working in another country and culture.