What’s the Difference between ‘Sensei’ and ‘Senpai’

Japanese teacher and her 6th grade class | © JoshBerglund19 / Flickr, image cropped
Japanese teacher and her 6th grade class | © JoshBerglund19 / Flickr, image cropped

‘Sensei’ is a Japanese word that has long been familiar to English speakers thanks to karate movies in pop culture and dojo, or training studios where martial arts enthusiasts learn under a sensei. But in recent years, the rise of anime and manga in Western media has brought a new word into the English lexicon — senpai. While the two terms may sound similar, they have different definitions based on a person’s seniority within Japanese society.

What does ‘sensei’ mean?

Sensei, pronounced sen-say, is in its most basic sense a covers-all Japanese word for a teacher. This applies to teachers from grade school level up to university professors. It also includes instructors such as dance instructors and training instructors at a karate dojo, or martial arts school.

Karate training | © Ikusuki / Flickr

However, the word ‘sensei’ is always used from the perspective of the student or trainee. A person would never call themselves ‘sensei’. Instead, they would use the professional term for their occupation, such as kyoushi (教師) for a teacher. That’s because, in Japanese, ‘sensei’ is a title for addressing someone who is a master of their craft or has a specialized degree, including ikebana (traditional flower arrangement) instructors, doctors, and even lawyers. So, when going to see the doctor in Japan, you would address Doctor Yamada as ‘Yamada-sensei’.

Ikebana is the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement | © Jérôme Decq / Flickr

Is ‘gakusei’ or ‘seito’ the opposite of ‘sensei’?

‘Seito’ (pronounced say-toh) and ‘gakusei’ (pronounced gahk-say) are both words used to refer to a person who studies under a sensei, but there is a difference between the two. While ‘seito’ generally refers to anyone who studies under a sensei, ‘gakusei’ refers specifically to people who study at at a school—the ‘gaku’ (学) in ‘gakusei’ (学生) is the same kanji used in ‘gakkou’ (学校), or school.

Junior high school student with her teacher on graduation day | © Danielle Olson / Flickr

There are also most specific terms like deshi (pronounced deh-she) for those training under a master as his apprentice.

What does ‘senpai’ mean?

One unique aspect of Japanese culture is the emphasis placed on the relationship between two people and how it impacts their interactions with each other. ‘Senpai’ (pronounced sen-pie — pie, as in the baked good) is a term used to describe a person of more seniority and experience who is there to mentor and support their juniors.

This goes for students, sports players, office coworkers, and even professional experts. In fact, someone who is considered a sensei to their students may in turn have their own senpai whom they look to for professional advice and guidance.

What does ‘kohai’ mean?

On the flip side is the ‘kohai’ (pronounced ko-high), or more junior member of the relationship. Senpai and kohai are two people who always exist in relationship to each other, so a person cannot simply be a senpai or kohai without a matching counterpart. In some cases, a senpai-kohai pairing where the two form a close bond can become a relationship for life, and the kohai will continue to turn to their senpai for help or advice in both personal and professional matters even as adults.

Senpai in manga, anime, and memes

In Japanese culture, the senpai-kohai relationship has become highly romanticized in both manga and anime, especially for stories involving junior high and high school-aged characters. According to the website KnowYourMeme, this sparked the catchphrase “I hope senpai will notice me” on the internet platform Tumblr around 2012, which eventually evolved into a internet meme about unrequited adoration from the person one admires.

While it remains to be seen whether ‘senpai’ will move beyond an internet joke for anime and manga enthusiasts and become part of the English vernacular as the Japanese word ‘sensei’ has, until then, at least you can now explain the difference between ‘sensei’ versus ‘senpai’.

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel – and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Epic Trips, Mini Trips and Sailing Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travellers and friends who want to explore the world together.

Epic Trips are deeply immersive 8 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and enough down time to really relax and soak it all in. Our Mini Trips are small and mighty - they squeeze all the excitement and authenticity of our longer Epic Trips into a manageable 3-5 day window. Our Sailing Trips invite you to spend a week experiencing the best of the sea and land in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm – and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Cookies Policy

We and our partners use cookies to better understand your needs, improve performance and provide you with personalised content and advertisements. To allow us to provide a better and more tailored experience please click "OK"