The meaning of kouhai (後輩) in Japanese and how to use it

Kouhai means a junior or freshman in Japanese.

In this article, I will talk about the Japanese word kouhai. I will teach you its Japanese definition, translation, and cultural significance with the help of examples.

What does kouhai mean?

The Japanese word kouhai (後輩、こうはい) means junior or freshman. This is a tricky term to translate into English, which has no exact equivalent, but the kouhai is basically the less senior or less experienced person in a given relationship. You therefore use kouhai when talking about someone in a lower grade (at school) or newer than you (at work or in a team).

The senior in this hierarchical relationship is called the senpai (先輩). Being the more experienced person, the senpai often has the role of acting as a mentor to teach or instruct their kouhai.

Are kouhai younger than senpai?

A kouhai will often be younger than their senpai, but this is not always the case. For example, an older person entering a company in their 30s would actually be the kouhai of their new colleagues as this person is still new.

Why is the kouhai-senpai relationship sexualized?

This up-down power dynamic of the kouhai-senpai relationship is often sexualized in Japanese media such as soap operas and anime. I would say this is because it has historically been quite common for romantic relationships to arise between workmates and school friends who spend a lot of time together. Perhaps some girls are also attracted to a more experienced guys who seem cooler than their fellow classmates.

While such intimate relationships do sometimes happen in Japan, I would say the trend is a bit exaggerated (sorry to disappoint!). Nowadays, these stories are becoming less common, especially in Japanese companies, because of social change in the country and growing political correctness.

How do kouhai address their senpai?

In Japanese anime, you often hear the kouhai call out “senpai!” to the more senior person. This is technically correct, and I guess it sounds cuter coming from a beautiful character, but using someone’s name (adding -kun at school or -san at work) is more common in real life.

Culturally speaking, kouhai are required to show respect and deference to their senpai. This is reflected by the polite language they need to use towards them. Therefore, they will use polite forms of address like “desu” and “masu”.

Senpai do not reciprocate this politeness and usually use more casual language towards their kouhai. This might seem strange or unfair to you, but you need to remember that, unlike English, Japanese is a hierarchical language at its core. Everyone becomes a kouhai or senpai at some point so it is just situational.

Example sentences using kouhai

Below, we take a look at some examples of how to use kouhai in Japanese.

To make it easier for you, I have written each sentence in full Japanese kanji on the first line, followed by roman letters (romaji), and hiragana, with the English meaning coming last. I have also highlighted the new word in bold.

Gakkou no kouhai wo suki ni natte shimatta.
I have fallen in love with someone in a lower grade.

Kanojo wa boku yori ni nen kouhai desu.
She is two years my junior.

Kouhai wa mada zenzen shigoto ga dekinai.
My subordinate still can’t get any work done at all.