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Experiencing Japan’s Senpai-Kouhai System at Work

Japanese society is quite traditional when it comes to hierarchical relationships. They follow a senpai-kouhai custom. This custom underlies nearly all relationships in Japan, ranging from school, work, and other organizations such as sports clubs. The basic rule of this custom is simple; senpai is the mentor or senior while kouhai is the junior.

This Japanese custom typically starts and develops at middle school, where juniors have to learn something from their seniors. The seniors are responsible for mentoring and nurturing the skills of their juniors. They would be the ones to train them and correct them if they did something wrong.

The senpai-kouhai system is practically the same when it comes to working, and it takes precedence over qualifications or abilities. It is at the forefront of the whole Japanese working environment. Just like in middle school, the seniors are to guide the juniors, and the juniors should soak up all the new skills and know-hows taught to them.

The Kouhai

Every year, there are thousands of fresh graduates in Japan looking for their first job. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them. Graduating from a University, indeed, is an accomplishment. You’ve finally finished your studies and you’re ready to take on a significant role in large companies. But in reality, no matter how grand your position in the company is, you will still be treated as a kouhai.

Being an international student means you have been a kouhai before. But, how does being a kouhai at school differ from being one at work? The answer is simple; no matter what your age or status is at work, if you’re the newly-hired employee, then you’re the kouhai.

Being a kouhai means that you only have little room for your ego. The critical thing to remember is that you need to have an open mind, accept criticism, and listen as much as possible to all your senpai’s advice. Accept everything that’s given to you as long as it’s fair. And as the kouhai, it’s your sole responsibility to learn from your senpais.

When it comes to going out for a drink, the kouhai will be the one to pour the drinks to all your bosses and senpais. This behavior will leave a good impression on your bosses and your reputation in the company.

The Senpai

In school, a senpai usually orders the kouhai around with some errands for their requirements. In return, they have to teach them how to survive in the university.

While at work, the senpai serves as the mentor of the kouhai, making it their sole responsibility to guide them. They will show the kouhai how everything works in the office, advise them on some work matters, and discreetly tell them if they need to improve on a task or skill.

You are likely to become a senpai once you’ve been in the company for over a year. But, remember that being a senpai does not mean that you’re a boss. For instance, it’s not always your responsibility to order the kouhai around. You have to help in nurturing the kouhai to have a more productive working attitude. When it comes to eating out, it’s also your responsibility to treat them since you have a higher pay grade than them.

Japan’s Senpai-Kouhai System at Work

The senpai-kouhai relationship is an essential part of the Japanese work structure and culture. The system helped in producing high-quality output and improved teamwork among working individuals. Japanese workers pay much respect to this system because it’s part of their customs and way of life.

A senpai can guide a single or group of kouhai, depending on the company. The senpai’s role and responsibility will never change while the role of the current kouhai can. Whenever there are newly-hired employees, some kouhai become a senpai.

Japanese locals are known to have high respect for their elders. With this, being a senpai with a much older kouhai is a tricky business. Even so, you still have to guide them with their tasks and responsibilities. To help you eliminate the awkwardness in that situation, you might want to use Keigo.

Keigo is Japan’s unique and most polite speech. This speech style is often used when doing business with foreign clients, but, you can also use this when mentoring a kouhai who’s older than you as this speech shows your humility as well as respect to them. It’s more appropriate to use this speech whenever you’re thanking, welcoming, or asking them for a favor.


Starting your career in Japan is not as hard as it looks once you have the passion and determination to do your work efficiently. But as a foreign worker, it’s still best to familiarize yourself with the responsibilities of a kouhai and a senpai. Experiencing this work system in a Japanese company will be a worthwhile experience and a new achievement unlocked in your life.

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