Senpai versus sempai

Senpai and sempai are two words that are heard most often when talking about Japanese society, particularly in schools and colleges. In fact, senpai, which is sometimes referred to as sempai, is an honorific term that is used by a junior for a senior. The junior is referred to as a kouhai by the senpai. The term became very popular on the internet in the last few years, and people still make searches for this term though they search it both as senpai and sempai. Many remain confused between senpai and sempai because of this. This article attempts to find out if there are any differences between senpai and sempai or are they just two spellings of the same Japanese word.


Japanese terms have become quite popular in the western world courtesy anime. Many of the comic books coming out of Japan focus upon schools and college years and the term senpai is used very commonly in them. This term reflects the social hierarchy in educational institutions and is reserved for seniors. Juniors are labeled as kouhai, and they are expected to show deference to their senpai. Senpai receive a lot of respect from kouhai and in return senpai show protective behavior towards kouhai. ‘I hope Senpai will notice me’ has become a catchphrase in anime and manga where kouhai students (mainly females) are shown wondering if they will be noticed by the senpai.

The term senpai is, by extension, applicable to juniors and seniors in all situations, in life, and it can be seen being used by juniors when talking about their seniors in offices too. Japan is by nature a society where social hierarchy is stressed a lot. If anything, the term senpai compares well with the concept of mentor in the western world while kouhai roughly equates with a protégé. The thing to remember is that senpai is reserved for seniors and not used for teachers. For teachers, the term used is sensei in Japan.


Sempai is a term that is the translation of the Japanese term senpai. The fact that in Japanese system of writing, the English letter n is pronounced as m has led to the translation of senpai as sempai.


There is no difference between senpai and sempai. Senpai is an honorific term used by juniors in educational institutions in japan for their seniors. This social hierarchy gets reflected in later life too, and people seem to refer to their seniors as senpai. Because n is pronounced m by the Japanese, those westerners that tried to write the word in English heard sempai and thus this spelling. Currently one can find both senpai and sempai being used in the western world but both refer to the same concept of senior or mentor, and there is no difference in their meanings.