Senior-junior relationships in Japan

Social interactions occur in everyday life. Due to cultural differences, people display a range of attitudes and behavior when it comes to learning, working, and communicating with others. This paper will focus on senior-junior relationships in Japan, and hopes to be able to provide a deeper insight into how such relationships operate in Japanese society. In order to achieve this, relevant examples from selected Japanese anime will be used. In addition, through comparing anime and our knowledge of real-life Japan, we may better understand the extent to which anime accurately portrays (or not portray) what it means to be in a senior-junior relationship in Japan.

There are two major types of senior-junior relationships in Japan, which are the sempai-kohai and the sensei-gakusei relationship.

One is likely to hear the words ‘sempai’ and ‘kohai’ being uttered in conversations with the Japanese, or during the study of Japan’s culture. For the purpose of this paper, a sempai will be taken to refer to one who performs the role of guide and mentor to his or her kohai, with this relationship based on the relative seniority and status between them (McCallion, 1983). Being a senior indicates that one has either been in a particular organization for a longer period of time, or has a larger amount of experience compared to the junior, or both. This relationship can be seen in sports clubs, such as dojos (school for training in Japanese arts of self-defense), schools, as well as in business organisations. For this relationship, the selected anime for analysis are Fruits Basket, Prince of Tennis, and Maria-sama ga miteru ~haru~ (The Virgin Mary is watching – Spring).
As a product of Japan, anime comes in many genres. According to AnimeNfo, genres range from science-fiction and mechas (large human-piloted humanoid vehicles) to sports and school life. Although senior-junior relationships by themselves do not form a specific anime genre, they act as a platform from which characters in an anime form bonds and interact with one another.

What role do senior-junior relationships play in the context of Japan? According to Nakane (1970), ranking by seniority can be considered as the “principal controlling factor of social relations in Japan.” In a direct contrast to a merit-based hierarchical society such as the United States of America, relationships in Japan function largely on the basis of the relative seniority between any two people. With this in mind, the rest of this paper will attempt to explain the intricacies of the sempai-kohai and the sensei-gakusei relationships in anime, and what they can tell us about Japanese society and its culture.

The sempai-kohai relationship has some inherent characteristics which tell us the responsibilities of the sempai and kohai. They include respect, initiation, discipline, impartiality, emotional support, protection, mentorship, and last but not least, apprenticeship. Examples from the three selected anime will serve to support and explain these characteristics.


Respect is especially important to a society such as Japan, due to its highly rank-dependent societal structure. In daily interaction, one has to be conscious of the relative status of the other person. This is mainly expressed through one’s behavior, or what the Japanese refers to as “aisatsu”. Although the equivalent in English is “greetings”, aisatsu includes related behavior, such as one’s facial expressions, actions complementing the greeting, and the Japanese keigo (honorifics) language system. In a nutshell, the aisatsu system provides prescribed behavior in social situations in a Japanese environment (Wetzel, 2004). Some examples are: the use of different greetings when meeting someone in the morning, afternoon, and evening, and saying “itte kimasu” to explain that one is going out and will be coming back. This may seem to be common sense to the non-Japanese, but it is an essential part of Japanese culture, and there is a sense of expectation that when speaking to the Japanese, one should always use the appropriate aisatsu. Some common aisatsu can be seen in the following table.

Therefore, when this expected behavior fails to materialize, negative emotions may arise and a sense of disrespect perceived. In a scene from Prince of Tennis, a first-year tennis club student, Ryoma Echizen, walks past the sempai of the club nonchalantly and seemingly greets them by simply saying “Cheers.” This angers the sempai, and an interesting point to note is that instead of teaching his kohai the correct behavior, which is to bow, greet and enquire about the sempai’s well-being, the next scene shows the sempai thinking of humiliating Echizen, possibly for his violation of the aisatsu ‘norm’. Although this is a reversal of a sempai’s responsibilities, this serves to relate one of the possible tensions in a sempai-kohai relationship.

One of the major ways of showing respect in Japan is through the use of keigo. Keigo refers to the entire system of honorific language, which includes sonkeigo (exalting expressions), kenjougo (humble expressions), and teineigo (polite expressions). By using specific expressions to elevate the status of the other (sonkeigo), or lowing the status of oneself (kenjougo), the required “distance” is thus created to show respect to the sempai (Niyekawa, 1991). The most apparent honorific used is the way in which the sempai will address the kohai and vice versa. The following table shows the common honorific suffixes.

In Maria-sama ga miteru ~haru~, the seour (sister) system gives us a close representation of a sempai-kohai relationship. In one scene, Yumi addresses her soeur, Sachiko, as “oneesama” (elder sister), while Sachiko addresses Yumi as simply “Yumi.” Although the “-sama” honorific suffix is only used to address family members, the requirement to address one’s senior soeur as “oneesama” in this anime series serves to emphasize the expected closeness of the sempai-kohai relationship, which would be as close as sibling bonds. Even outside of the school environment, Yumi does not change the way she addresses Sachiko. There is an ever-present awareness of this sempai-kohai bond, with the assumption that it will remain unchanged even after they graduate, and even after (Nakane, 1970).

Another scene exemplifies the high value placed on the Japanese ethic of wa. According to Nakane, wa refers to the harmonious integration of group members. This includes sempai-kohai relationships. Noriko, a first-year student and soon-to-be seour of second-year student Shimako, is in a quarrel with third-year student Sei. The quarrel started as Noriko addressed Shimako as Shimako-san, instead of Shimako-sama. With the quarrel getting more and more heated, Shimako speaks out and uses her indecisiveness and irresponsibility as reasons for Noriko’s mistake. This can be seen as using self-reproach as an attempt to restore the harmony within the sempai and kohai in the room.

Besides the use of honorific titles, sonkeigo and kenjougo act as the major components of speech which allows for the expression of respect. A kohai would use sonkeigo to show exaltation, by using special honorific verbs to express actions done by the sempai. On the other hand, kenjougo is a system of expressions from which the kohai would use special humbling verbs to express actions done by him or herself. An example can be seen in the table below.

The analysis of Japanese anime with respect to keigo is a particularly difficult task, one which is impaired by the use of English subtitles and dubbing in other languages. As shown in the above table, some verbs can take three different forms. In the translation process, be it fan-subbing or licensed anime subtitling, such nuances of the Japanese language cannot be, and are usually not easily captured. The end result is that the original meaning behind certain dialogue intended to express respect in one form or another is lost. Even if one were to be literate in Japanese, some licensed anime may prove to be an impassable barrier, due to the original Japanese dialogue being completely removed and replaced with dubbed dialogue.

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The concept of respect spans a sizable area of Japanese culture, with language playing a big role. Hinds (1976) explained that the Japanese honorific system is “not restricted to verbal inflections,” and that it “permeates the whole of Japanese speaking style.” Language barriers prevent a detailed analysis of sempai-kohai relationships in relation to highly complicated keigo system, especially to the non-Japanese. However, it is one characteristic which cannot be ignored in the overall context of any sempai-kohai relationship, as well as any other relationship in Japan, due to it being deeply rooted in Japanese society.


The feeling of insecurity is one of the defense mechanisms that are naturally in-built in human beings when put in a new or unfamiliar environment. This feeling causes people to become wary of their surroundings and cautious of their actions. With this concept in mind, it is not hard to understand why new members in an organization or group may not to choose mix around with the others initially. The new-comers would gather among themselves to find encouragement and support as they are on the same level and rank. This leads to them being able to identify with each other in times of trouble or difficulty in the new environment. In Prince of Tennis, new-comers of the tennis club are depicted as being always together in their own group, and they rarely approach their sempai.

Like any other non-superficial, committed relationships, a sempai-kohai relationship does not happen at an instant. Two individuals require a certain amount of time together to develop stronger bonds with each other. Therefore, the process of initiation at the very beginning of a sempai-kohai relationship may help to build rapport between the two. This characteristic of the relationship is important as it helps to make the new-comers of the group feel less threatened with their new surroundings and helps them assimilate into the group culture more easily. The sempai of the group are responsible for this initiation process, one which may be carried out in a formal or informal way.

As an example of a formal initiation process, in Maria-sama ga miteru ~haru~, the sempai welcomes the kohai in a ceremony called the “Maria Ceremony.” “Saint Medals” are given personally to each new student by the Yamayurikai (student council) leaders.

An informal initiation process would be one where the sempai and kohai get to know each other over time through impromptu conversations and activities. An atypical method may involve mild bullying by the sempai. For example, in Prince of Tennis, the unknowing kohai are bullied by their sempai into playing an unfair game of knocking a can from a serve, in order to win a cash prize. However, the can had been filled with stones beforehand.

Regardless of the way in which initiation takes place in a sempai-kohai­ relationship, it acts as a foundation and is essential for the building of group bonds, as kohai are brought from an alienated state into the close-knit group.

Initiation also teaches the kohai on what is expected of them in the group, such as learning from their experienced sempai and doing their work diligently. The visions and goals of the organization are also inculcated at this stage, and direct the kohai in their learning process. Helmut Morsbach best describes initiation with an interesting example about a bank, in his work “Socio-Psychological Aspects of Persistence in Japan.”

Due to the fact that, once accepted, the recruits will in all likelihood be with the firm until retirement, the management feels that it has a duty towards them concerning the “right” training, which also includes spiritual matters. This was stressed right at the beginning, when the bank president in his welcoming speech said that steady progress in one’s work should be a great life-long value:

Never ignore the fact that our present situation is the result of blood and sweat of many sempai (senior people) who have raised the bank to its high position. I sincerely ask you to get involved with your work in a serious and devoted manner.

Whereupon the representative of the new men replied, We regard the bank as our life and our career. We are committed to battle with all our strength under the banner of “Harmony and Strength”… We ask our seniors to lead and educate us, for we know it is imperative that we become hardy and brave bank men, possessing a spirit of devotion and capacity for effective action. (1983, pg 28-29)


One of the fundamental duties of a sempai is to guide and teach the kohai. A sempai naturally takes on the role of a mentor and offers experience in the area of work or study to the kohai, who may face a struggle to adapt to the new surroundings. Some sempai may go to the extent of sacrificing one’s personal time just to teach the kohai, as depicted in one scene from the anime Fruits Basket. The sempai, Yuki Sohma, gave tuition to his kohai, Tohru Honda, in the period leading to her examinations, which led to her doing well.

Mentorship by this method may not happen all the time. Sometimes, the sempai would expect the kohai to observe and learn independently, with only some pointers given along the way. This is best depicted in Prince of Tennis, where the kohai learn by watching tennis matches, after which they question their sempai regarding the different playing techniques that they saw. This mentorship instinct of the sempai may be due to the aim to strive for the better, and to bring progress to the group. This can be achieved by ensuring that the kohai can be as good as, or even surpass their sempai.

However, mentorship may not always be that simple a process. Douglas Moore Kenrick, in his book, The Success of Competitive Communism in Japan, wrote about the way the mentoring relationship occurs and the possible problem that may arise due to it.

He (sempai) selects his flock, one by one, from new entrants, probably youngsters from his old university. The senior will establish close personal relationship with each of his chosen juniors, encourage them and evaluate their capabilities… During their apprenticeship, their immediate chiefs, perhaps stuck in low-level sections, may be jealous of those juniors who they anticipate will, in due course, be promoted to rank higher than theirs. (1988, pg 59-60)

A sempai who is not the direct mentor of the kohai may feel threatened should the kohai perform better than him or herself. In response to this, the sempai may try to make things difficult for the kohai. Ryoma Echizen, a tennis prodigy in Prince of Tennis, is seen as a threat by some sempai who were not in the tennis school team. He encounters problems with these jealous sempai as they try to make things difficult for him in the tennis club. Such fear of being outperformed by the junior kohai may thus spark tension within the group. However, the sempai is still under obligation to mentor and teach the kohai for the betterment of the group.

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Conversely, the kohai assumes the role of an apprentice to learn from the sempai. Such roles may be small and relatively insignificant in the context of the group. For example, in Prince of Tennis, the kohai in the tennis club do not actually get to practice regularly. Rather, they are made to do things like ball picking after the sempai have practiced, folding tennis nets, and cheering for their school team during matches. This phenomenon may be explained in a few ways.

First, learning to do the small things responsibly and diligently would show that the kohai are ready to shoulder heavier responsibilities. If a kohai is not able to carry out these simple duties well, it does not bode well for their future in the group, as they would be the future sempai, responsible for another batch of kohai. Thus, the kohai would have to be humble and first prove that they are capable of handling the trivial matters.

Second, since the kohai are new to the group, the sempai may assume that they are inexperienced. Thus, the sempai may not find it wise to assign them duties that carry heavier responsibilities. By first taking on a minor role in the group, experience can then be slowly gained.

Often, kohai aspire to be like their sempai, with the sempai being seen as a role model. Therefore, the characteristics of mentorship and apprenticeship ensures the continual cycle of new sempai-kohai relationships through the imparting of knowledge to the existing kohai, for they would be future sempai and leaders of the group.


Discipline refers to the implementation of rules to ensure a particular state of order, and suitable punishment is meted out to correct errant behavior when rules are broken. This is especially prevalent in anime which feature sempai-kohai relationships. The sempai is often portrayed to be a strict individual who does not accept any nonsense from his kohai. Usually, there is a set of rules which govern the kohai’s personal conduct, which the sempai strives to enforce. The sempai takes up the role of the disciplinarian in this relationship and is always on the alert for any misbehavior by the kohai or any undesirable influence that might negatively affect him or her. Should there be any such scenario, the sempai will step in to rectify the situation by reprimanding the kohai.

An example of this can be seen in Maria-sama ga miteru ~haru~, where first-year Yumi is offered a snack by third-year student Sei, who already has her own chosen kohai. Yumi’s direct sempai, Sachiko, looks on disapprovingly and proceeds to warn Sei of the need for proper etiquette. Sachiko then lectures Yumi about her manners.

The kohai is supposed to obey and be submissive to the sempai. Nakane explains:

“Those of inferior status would not dare to laugh earlier or louder than their superiors, and most certainly would never offer opinions contradictory t those of their superiors.” (p. 33).

Nakane also suggests that it is only right that the kohai keep their comments to themselves “to avoid any open confrontation with his superior.” Such confrontations could “hurt the feelings of a superior” and “involve the risk of being cast from the group as an undesirable member” (p. 35). This means that the kohai is supposed to know his or her standing in the group and not go against the flow of matters.

At times, however, the enforcement of discipline backfires when the kohai does not accord the sempai with the necessary respect, by refusing to obey commands. This deviates from the ideal sempai-kohai relationship, with unnecessary tension coming into place.


Sempai must remain impartial and unprejudiced while dealing with their kohai. Therefore, when a kohai has misbehaved, the sempai is supposed to discipline him accordingly and not take any sides. In a scene in Prince of Tennis, a kohai has been judged to be disrespectful towards his sempai. The most senior member of the tennis squad then gives orders to punish the entire team by running laps, regardless of seniority. He resolutely states that he does not condone any breaking of the rules.

In addition, the sempai is not supposed to practise favoritism as it is unfair to the rest of the group. In Maria-sama ga miteru ~haru~, Rei, a third-year student, is worried that she may be seen in a different light by the kendo club kohai if she displays favoritism towards her soeur, Yoshino, who also happens to be her cousin, and is in the kendo club as well. Although such sibling sempai-kohai relationships are not the norm in Japanese society, it is worth noting that one has to place him or herself in the interest of the group at a temporal point in time, although the sempai and kohai may possess stronger bonds outside of the group.


The sempai is entrusted with the role of a guardian who protects his kohai from negative external pressures such as bullying. Often, this is done with little or no hesitation as the sempai feels that it is only right that he shields his kohai from any harm. The kohai are not as knowledgeable or experienced as their sempai, and are thus vulnerable and prone to intimidation by bullies. When the sempai protects the kohai, he may sacrifice his own benefit in order to ensure the well-being of the latter.

There is a greater need for sponsorship in Japan, to have a particular person of higher rank who will show the ropes to the subordinate, take care of the junior, speak for the junior person, and protect him. In return, the senior partner in the bond will receive loyalty and support from the junior partner. Both parties, therefore, have duties and responsibilities toward the other which are important for advancement and protection. (p. 24).

In Prince of Tennis, a female kohai accidentally steps on the shoes of an older male student from another school, who then proceeds to intimidate and bully her by trying to extort an exorbitant amount of money to clean his soiled shoes. Momoshiro, a sempai from the female kohai’s school, appears and punches the bully, who then beats a hasty retreat in a cowardly manner.

As another example, in Maria-sama ga miteru ~haru~, first-year student Noriko, with little hesitation, covers up for second-year student Shimako, when questioned about the possession of a juzu (Buddhism chain of beads). It had been given to her by Shimako, who was born of a Buddhist background. Such items are considered taboo in the Catholic school. Noriko did not want to reveal the true owner of the juzu even though it may lead to herself being punished. Such behavior is a reversal of what has been explained earlier, for in this scenario it is the kohai who steps up and protects the sempai instead.

Emotional support

The sempai is also responsible for the emotional well-being of the kohai. When a kohai joins a group, he or she is likely to feel left out and lonely, with the mindset that self-reliance may be the only solution. The sempai may offer help in making the kohai get used to the culture and practices of the group. The sempai may also try his or her best to solve any problems the kohai has by lending a listening ear whenever required.

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In Fruits Basket, Tohru is a young girl who had recently lost her mother to an accident, and becomes an orphan. Fortunately, she was able to stay in the house of the Soumas, who are older than her. In one particular scene, the male Soumas had to leave the house to participate in a New Year gathering in another town, leaving a kinless Tohru by herself in the house. Outside, Yuki and Kyou Souma realize how lonely and depressing it must be for Tohru to spend New Year’s Eve without her family. Guilt grips them and they rush back, only to find a teary Tohru looking forlornly at a photograph of her mother. They felt relieved that they made the correct decision to forego the New Year celebrations to be with Tohru to provide her with some much needed emotional support and companionship.

The wide-ranging characteristics of sempai-kohai relationships shape the behavior of its members as well as act as a guide on how the relationship should develop. In anime, however, there appears to be sporadic portrayals of problematic relationships and reversal of the norms of this part of Japanese society.

Besides sempai-kohai relationships, another major type of senior-junior relationship in Japan is the sensei-gakusei relationship, which is one between a teacher and his or her student. In the analysis of sensei-gakusei relationships in anime, it is important to observe that while overlapping of the characteristics inherent of a sempai-kohai relationship may occur. With this in mind, let us look at two anime, Onegai Teacher! (Please Teacher!) and GTO (Great Teacher Onizuka).

In a scene in GTO, Onizuka is faced with teaching a rebellious class, and as a new teacher, he struggles to cope with gaining their respect. White (1987) states that in a classroom setting, the students are expected to respect their teacher. However, in GTO, respect has to be earned. This is especially true if the student and teacher’s ages are not too far apart. Besides having to take charge of a rebellious class, Onizuka has to continually prove himself in order to gain his student’s respect. Besides the lack of experience, the absence of qualifications may also influence students’ attitude towards Onizuka.

According to White, hostility and rebellious students causes difficulty in commanding respect. Furthermore, teachers are subject to arrange of conflicting pressures from school authorities, peers, parents and their children. In GTO, these circumstances lead to Onizuka having to participate in extra-curricular activities to prove his worth as a teacher to be respected.

However, in Onegai Teacher!, respect is naturally accorded to the teacher by the students as long as they do not present too many problems in the classroom. They will show respect when it is due, even though the ages between teacher and student in this anime are not too far apart. The general obedience of the class may have led to this different behaviour from the students towards their teacher, as opposed to GTO.

Both teachers in the above-mentioned anime try their best in order to maintain class cohesiveness despite the problems they are faced with, and take it as their responsibility to earn the respect of their students which is imperative in a classroom setting.

Respect can also be earned through self-sacrifice. In GTO, Onizuka continually risks his life in order to protect and save his students. For example, he actually risks being fired from the school by not attending an aptitude test, instead choosing to rescue a trapped student, preventing her from being sexually abused. This is even though Onizuka is not the direct teacher of that student.

Going hand in hand with respect is the theme of responsibility. In GTO, Onizuka shows a great deal of responsibility towards his students in helping them solve their personal problems or by helping them adapt to their classmates even though he is not obliged to do so. In the process of rescuing his students from suicide attempts, or gangster threats, he inadvertently earns their respect. Respect and responsibility can thus be seen to be in a cause-and-effect relationship.

In Onegai Teacher!, however, responsibility is a direct result of the existence of romantic relations between the teacher, Kazami, and her student, Kei. Though she tries her best to protect him in school, and continually attempts to help him with his schoolwork, she is simply taking on the responsibility in the capacity of a lover instead of a teacher.

Between a teacher and his or her student lies a certain degree of dependency. In order to help a student, a teacher needs to understand the kind of problems he faces, in or outside of the classroom. In GTO, dependency between Onizuka and his students are can be seen through mutual protection of one another and through challenging external forces that may threaten the stability of the group.

Anime is a powerful medium in which differences between teacher and student roles are represented, such as responsibility, respect, sacrifice and dependency. There are differences in the what teachers in different societies are expected to be like, and in the case of Japan, such roles appear to be rigid in nature, due to Japan’s societal structure.


Senior-junior relationships play a significant role in anime, as seen from the various examples. This is especially true in the context of Japan, where seniority has been the main factor in deciding one’s social ranking. In anime, although such relationships do not usually play a major role in the development of the plot, ranking by seniority forms an innate and essential societal structure in which the anime characters can blossom. In Japan today, senior-junior relationships continue to shape the attitudes and behavior of people in just about every level of society, from school, to work, and even play. With anime, it is possible for us to grasp a better understanding of how relationships work in Japan, including the expected responsibilities that come with being a sempai or kohai, or a sensei or gakusei. The possible tensions between Japanese in such relationships are also represented. The popularity of fads in real life may fade away just like the popularity of certain genres of anime, but Japanese tradition, as with the existence of senior-junior relationships in anime, will stand up to the test of time.

Once a sempai, always a sempai.


Harold R. K., & John A. M. (1995). Who Rules Japan? : the Inner Circles of Economic and Political Power. London: Praeger Publishers.

Hinds, J. (1976). Aspects of Japanese discourse structure. Tokyo: Kaitakusha Co., Ltd.

Kenrick, D. M. (1988). The Success of Competitive-Communism in Japan. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.

Morsbach, H. (1983). Socio-Psychological Aspects of Persistence in Japan. In Takebayashi, Yoshitaka (Ed.), Essays on Japanology, 1978-1982 (pp. 7-23). Kyoto: International Cultural Association of Kyoto.

Nakane, C. (1970). Japanese Society. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

Niyekawa, A. (1991). Minimum essential politeness: a guide to the Japanese honorific language. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd.

Wetzel, P.J. (2004). Keigo in modern Japan: polite language from Meiji to the present. United States of America: University of Hawai’i Press.

White, M. (1987). The Japanese Educational Challenge : A Commitment to Children. New York : Free Press.


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Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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