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The Japanese society is a society full of manners and politeness. Like other cultures, they do have certain titles for people and they use those titles as an honorific. While you are used to honorifics like "san," "kun," and "chan," you probably aren't as familiar with "senpai." If you've watched enough school life anime or manga, then you have definitely heard someone being referred to as "senpai".
"Senpai" is an honorific generally used to refer to an upperclassman. It's a little foreign to people in the west since we don't really use anything to indicate that someone is ahead of us, but in Japan, they do. Say you are a middle schooler, someone in high school would be your senpai, or if you are a freshman, a sophomore is your senpai. Unlike other honorifics, "senpai" an be used at the end of someone's name or it can be used as a title much like the way "sensei" is used.
"Senpai" isn't just used at school, though! It can also be used to refer to someone who has been working at your place of employment longer than you. If you've seen Servant x Service or Working, you will see this usage of "senpai". Isn't Taneshima Popura the cutest senpai?
Kuran Kaname "Vampire Knite"
Western societies are not quite used to using honorifics as a sign of respect. As a child, you may assign an honorific to an adult, but as you get older and join the adult world, there is no need for that anymore. In Japanese society, however, this is not the case. Japanese people tend to continue using different honorifics depending on their relationship with that person. That can vary from respect, intimacy, or disrespect.
Referring to someone who is a grade ahead of you in school or above you at work as a senpai, is a sign of respect.
"Servant x Service" x "Working!"
If you're a fan of slice of life or school life anime, you can see that there is quite a lot of pride in being a senpai. Senpais are role models, someone that the underclassmen can look up to. There is a lot of emphasis on what it means to be a senpai.
Popura from Working is a good example because she feels a lot of pride in being a senpai even though she looks like a elementary school child. Popura took it upon herself to teach Takanashi Souta the basics of working in the restaurant. Although the training didn't go well, Popura is a proper senpai because she does a great job.
Let's look at Ichimiya Taishi from Servant x Service. Taishi's the senpai of the three main characters, but despite all of his years of experience, Hasebe Yutaka always points out Taishi's mistakes and somehow manages to top Taishi in every aspect-- And Yutaka looks for an excuse to take a break at every turn! Taishi is usually down on himself for it because he fails as a proper senpai. As you can see, it can be very important!
Hori-senpai "Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun"
The Senpai Complex; I'm not actually sure if that is an actual term, but it is something I have noticed in many anime. There are many characters in anime that insist on being called "senpai." This is either due to some superiority complex in a few characters, a desire to be looked up to, or and insistence on proper manners. Well, there is also the moe aspect, but we'll talk about it later.
Some individuals opt not to call someone by the respectable term "senpai" for their own reasons, but that doesn't mean some won't insist on it. This is just a situation that I have seen often enough in anime. An example would be Kanisawa Kinu from Tsuyokiss who is a lolita, but insists that everyone call her kouhai.
Honey-senpai "Ouran High School Host Club"
Yes, I'm bringing up how moe senpais are! It must be done. You just can't imagine how moe it is to have a senpai that you look up to. There's just something very exciting about it! Senpai are generally very serious or someone to be respected, but that's the allure of them! They can sometimes have a cold exterior that you just have to melt. Anyone out there agree that stoic types are moe?
A very popular type of senpai in anime are the shota or lolita senpai. What I mean is the senpai who is technically older but appears to be much younger than they actually are. Popura is an example of this senpai, but a very famous shota senpai would be Honey-senpai from Ouran High School Host Club! It's a great way at combining the shota/lolita aspect to someone who is older and thus, an actual possible romantic interest instead of a prepubescent child that society would frown upon. That is a big no-no in most societies.
Quite a few harems or reverse harems feature senpai characters. Not all of them are shota/lolita types. They can be quite cool and respected individuals, which isn't always the case for characters who are shotas or lolitas, as we can see with Honey who is treated like a child instead of the senpai that he is.
Let's not forget how moe it is to actually be a senpai and have someone look up to you in times of trouble. Having a cute kouhai is a pleasure, isn't it? There's a feeling of excitement when a cute kouhai looks up to you and calls you "senpai." It is most definitely moe! Although, not exactly an experience in western societies.
Ichijou-senpai "Non Non Biyori"
I hope after reading this article, you have a better idea about what a senpai is. Though it is not a common idea in western societies, you can still enjoy senpais in anime, manga, or even video games. Is there a senpai in your life that you respect? Let me know your thoughts!