In Japan, we call a person who is a senior in school, office, and social activity even a-year-ahead arriver “Senpai.” We address quite casually and lightly to a senior who entered school and office even a year ahead “Senpai!” in school, office, club and even on street.

The opposite of Senpai is ‘Kohai (後輩)’ literally meaning ‘late-coming (born) guy,’ but it is rare that the Senpai calls junior(s) ‘Kohai’ to his/her/their face(s). When we call somebody 'Senpai,' we don’t need to prefix Mr. / Ms, or even add the surname.

Though 'Senpai' can serve as a mentor to juniors and freshmen(women) in school, on sports, on profession in many cases, the nuance of the word would be just "Hey, my elder peer!" I understand Chinese have the same word / characters (先輩) besides "xiansheng (先生)" = Mr., literally meaning 'earlier-born'.

As I looked for the English counterpart of this word in Kenkyusha’s Readers Japanese -English Dictionary, it provided the following explanation:

Senpai – One’s senior. There is no English counterpart to this word because the relationship between senior and junior is not regarded as so important in English speaking countries. It would be more natural to say “He entered the company (university) five years before me,” if you wish to say “He is my Senpai.” in English.

However, this explanation doesn’t address how with what to call / address to Senpai as a courtesy title or addressing word in school, office, and business, social, cultural circles.

Is it true that there is no equivalent or alternative to “Senpai” as addressing word in English? If there are, how do you call?

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    English doesn't assume that relative seniority within a given social rank is any indication that they might be deserving of special courtesy. I'm not sure why this should be. Perhaps, historically, occupation-specific titles of seniority were common enough to make a senpai-equivalent redundant in most cases, or social hierarchies were usually based on some distinction other than relative seniority? I'm just speculating. In any case, the English language does not have a courtesy title for people of greater seniority than the speaker.
    – user867
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 1:30
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    @user867 Except, perhaps, 'senior'.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 2:39
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    In fact, I cannot think of any European language with a common courtesy honorific for seniority (as opposed to rank). The senpai-kohai relationship is, so to speak, a foreign concept to the West except where it has been defined within a particular discipline or profession.
    – choster
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 4:24
  • 3
    In Italy it was more customary to address professionals with their job titles, thus "Dottor/Professore/Ingegnere/Geometra/Ragioniere/Avvocato/Senatore Conti" was a common greeting, and often said in a tone of awe and respect. Nowadays this practice is dying out, although the older generation will still refer to anyone who has earned a degree as dottore or dottoressa regardless if they are in field of medicine or not. This cultural reverence would drive me up the wall, as a teenager, especially if the "Doctor" in question was (only) an accountant.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 7:40
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    Yoichi Oishi, near the end of your question you wrote "However, this explanation doesn’t address how to call". You should replace the how with what.
    – Tristan r
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 13:21

7 Answers 7


Generally, English does not have an equivalent term to Senpai, although since the Michael Crichton book Rising Sun, and its film adaptation, it is an increasingly understood term.

We do not formally acknowledge the same sort of relationship. (As your dictionary suggests, we would just highlight that they joined the company a few years ahead . . .)

So, the short answer to this question is: No, there is no equivalent to the word in English.

There are situations, however, where you may need to address a superior.

In English, if someone is your superior it is always polite to call them Sir or Ma'am, although this may be extremely formal for most situations (especially if you are not in the military). It would generally be reserved for situations where there is a major disparity in level. (A conversation between an employee and the CEO in the mail room, for example.)

Otherwise, to show respect for someone in a senior position to yourself, you would refer to them as Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, or Dr. followed by their last name.

The superior may choose to either refer to you in the same manner, or, to call you by your first name.

Another situation which may arise is when someone has a title already:

For example: If John Smith holds the title of General in the army, you can always address him as General Smith, General, or even Sir.

The same holds for members of the clergy. You can call them Father, Reverend, Rabbi, or whatever their title commands. The clergy often allow you to use their title with their first name (e.g. Father John), but it is also correct to use their last name with their title.

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    I don't think the words you mention are the equivalent of 'Senpai', which I thinks is a sort of senior peer to oneself. It is very oriental in conception and sort of reflects the way a younger sibling will refer to an older one with an honorific name in Chinese.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 2:48
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    @WS2 I believe I fully acknowledged that above when I said we don't acknowledge that sort of relationship. I merely was providing a helpful, albeit tangential, treatise on the ways to address people in a superior position.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 3:21
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    This answer is very good, though I would note that calling someone "sir" or "ma'am" does not just risk being "a tad formal for most situations" but offensive in many situations. In the United States, at least, there is a presumption in conversation that everyone is equal, and using a formal term of address adds the idea of different social status where one may not be not welcome.
    – nohat
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 5:18
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    Sometimes there really isn't an answer to a question. Better to say that than to engage in the awful habit of some users here of using questions like this as their opportunity to coin a new phrase or neologism that has never been used before, and likely will never be. Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 12:14
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    +1: There is no equivalent word in English. Most cultures don't match idiom for idiom, but this is especially true when you are talking about a culture in which position relative to any specific individual determines, literally, what nouns, pronouns (if at all), and verb forms you use to address them (Japanese) and one that finds such a notion not only strange but downright baffling (American, Western, etc.) Not every word has a translation. How would you render 大和魂 in English: Patriotism? National pride? No English term even comes close. You'd need a paragraph at least.
    – Robusto
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 14:44

There is no exact equivalent in English. However, when I refer to someone who I consider to be senior to me in experience even though they are not necessarily senior in position I will often use the term "mentor" or "guide." So for example: "Jan was a real mentor to me when I first started working at Taco Bell, she showed me the ropes and really helped me get my footing in the kitchen." Even though Jan is also a Taco Bell chef and one of probably equal pay grade her experience and seniority is shown through the act of mentorship.

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    These are excellent descriptions of an important relationship dynamic. It should be noted that unlike a Senpai, this is a very personal relationship that develops, and is not to be automatically assumed.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 11:40

As David M has already answered, there's no direct equivalent. In English, we tend to use titles and choice of which name to use to express the kind of relationships that the Japanese express with -san, -chan, -sensei, and so on. English has five forms of address:-

  1. Title with family name, e.g. Mr Hulme
  2. Family name alone, e.g. Hulme
  3. Full name, e.g. Dan Hulme
  4. Given name alone, e.g. Dan
  5. A title that doesn't use a name, e.g. sir, boss, guv

Traditionally in British English, in a workplace setting, I would call my boss Mr Smith, but he would just call me Hulme. I'd call colleagues at the same level as me by their last name alone, regardless of whether they'd been in the company longer, or if they're older or younger. Only how important they are in the company matters: are they my boss, or my boss's boss, &c.

I might call my friends by their family name alone, and only close friends or family members by their given name alone.

Similarly, in a school, a pupil would call teachers "sir" or "Mr Smith", and the teacher would call pupils by their family name alone. Pupils of all ages would call each other by their family name alone: again, age difference doesn't matter for this.

However, things have changed a lot in the last 50 years or so. As well as the US influence on the language worldwide (the States not having a feudal past like Britain and Japan), and increasing egalitarianism across Europe, given names are used a lot more widely today in Britain, along with other English-speaking countries.

Nowadays, at the office, everyone will probably introduce themselves using given names, or even nicknames. Even very senior managers are often addressed with given name alone. In a social context, people will always use given name alone, even with someone they've just met. In a school, "sir" is very much out of fashion: pupils call teachers "Mr Smith", and pupils are usually called by their given name, regardless of who by.

That said, this is something that's still changing, so there's variation between places. Some workplaces still go for "Mr Smith", and some schools still insist on "sir". You might even hear the odd "guv", and there are still professions with formal titles.

To sum up:-

In today's use, anyone you would call -chan, -kun, or -senpai, you should address by their given name. Anyone you know well enough to call by family name alone in Japanese, you should probably use given name for them too. This applies whether you're talking about them to someone else, addressing them directly, or calling at them in the street.

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    While today's rules are similar in the U.S. and the U.K., you should realize that the historical part of this answer only applies to the U.K. and the rules were different in the U.S. For example, addressing somebody who is not subordinate to you by their family name alone strikes me as something that is very British. Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 10:23
  • @PeterShor Yeah, I was trying to make that distinction clear at the same time as showing how things have changed here. I don't want to get too much into it, as the traditional use is only there to make the current situation easier to understand, but I've changed my answer and I hope it's clearer now.
    – Dan Hulme
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 10:29
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    Dan and Peter, that is not entirely the case. In my primary school experience, children and teachers usually addressed each other by first names. There were a few exceptions for the only male teachers who were mister and surname. In secondary school, students usually addressed teachers as sir or miss and teachers called them by their first names.
    – Tristan r
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 12:04
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    @Tristanr When was that? I think primary schools have been first-name for longer than secondary schools, but there's a lot of variation. I know some secondary schools today have pupils call teachers by their given names, but that's still quite rare in the UK.
    – Dan Hulme
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 13:31
  • Dan, that was in the last decade. I didn't experience addressing teachers by first names in secondary school, only in primary.
    – Tristan r
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 14:25

While it is not a form of address, and you'd never use it to refer to someone directly, in an educational context, in the United States, the correct term for a student at a school who has been there for longer than you would generally be upperclassman. This is mainly used in high school and undergraduate college contexts, where the term usually generically refers to 3rd and 4th year students. Again, you would never use this to address somebody (I.e. "Hi Upperclassman Joe!"), but it may be used to say, for example that "upperclassmen are expected to attend at least one day of freshman orientation, to act as mentors" or whatever.

  • This answer would be improved if you included where in the world upperclassman is used. It is unfamiliar in England and the rest of the UK.
    – Tristan r
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 13:14
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    @Tristan so noted. The usage is probably specific to those educational structures that make use of the "Freshman/Sophomore/Junior/Senior" four-year progression that is standard in the US. Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 13:18

When I lived in a French-speaking country, I asked an older, respected Brit to preside over a meeting. He agreed to preside, and wistfully acknowledged that he was the doyen.


a : the senior member of a body or group b : a person considered to be knowledgeable or uniquely skilled as a result of long experience in some field of endeavor 2 : the oldest example of a category

There is a female equivalent, doyenne.

One would probably not refer to every Senpai as a doyen, but only the oldest and most respected. But I do think that it conveys the sense of wisdom and honor that accompany someone older than you.

There is a political connotation to elder statesman:

  1. an influential citizen, often a retired high official, whose advice is sought by government leaders.

  2. any influential member of a company, group, etc., whose advice is respected.

  3. Japanese History. any of the political leaders who retired from official office but continued to exert a strong influence in the government and who controlled the emperor's privy council, especially in the period 1898–1914.

The third definition, with its Japanese influence, is more at Insei than Senpai.


Often used in Britain is the Latin phrase primus inter pares which means roughly 'first among equals'. It is a well-known and well established British notion. The Prime Minister, who by convention nowadays has to be a member of the House of Commons, is sometimes seen as primus inter pares.

In the UK in medical (and some other professional) practices, one of the doctors will usually be known as 'the senior partner'. It too has a 'primus inter-pares' connotation.

Contrary to an impression I may have given earlier, the notion of 'senior, but in other respects equal', is not entirely foreign to Anglo tradition.

  • I haven't heard of primus inter pares being used in the UK.
    – Tristan r
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 13:05
  • @Tristanr Well, to be fair, since retiring, I took a degree in Modern History & Politics, and the notion of 'primus inter pares' was much discussed in relation to the status of the Prime Minister in Cabinet. So perhaps it is an exaggeration to say it is 'often used'. But I was persuaded that it is one of those quintessentially British maxims that belong in that arcane world of 'gentlemen'.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 17:59

It is not exactly the same, but to show respect to someone you would address them as "Sir" or "Ma'am."

This would usually be while speaking to someone with authority over you, or older than you, or to just be (overly) polite.

The same can be applied if you were to address someone by name under the same circumstances. To be respectful you would use their title Mr., Mrs., or Ms.

For example, when I was a child and would speak with the parents of my friend John Smith, I would call them Mr. Smith or Mrs. Smith.

Both of these cases would be more common when children are talking to adults.

However, this practice is mostly considered to be "old-fashioned" and uncommon, even with children these days.

How this differs from Senpai/Kohai relationship is that you would almost certainly not do this in a school or business while addressing someone who has been there longer than you but in the same position as you, unless they are in a mentorship or leadership position.

You should feel free to use these titles while speaking to people. There is nothing wrong with a dose of good old-fashioned respect. However, if you overdo it you might sound subservient, or if you are speaking to a woman the same age as you or younger she might think you are implying that she is old.

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