The new usage has even made Japanese news.

Senpai is a Japanese word that doesn’t have a one-to-one equivalent in English. It’s a title like “Mr.” or “Ms.” given to someone who is your senior in an organization.

For example, if you’re a first year high school student, then third-year Tanaka is “Tanaka-senpai” to you. If you were just hired at a company, then Suzuki who’s been there for two years is “Suzuki-senpai” to you. In both cases you are the kohai, the opposite of a senpai, their “junior.”

While kohai dating senpai is a thing that happens, in Japanese the word “senpai” is completely neutral. However in English it’s taken on a romantic connotation, as was recently pointed out on Japanese Twitter:

“I was searching for the origin of ‘senpai’ taking on a different meaning outside of Japan and found this article. ‘Senpai’ is being used as a meme as someone who doesn’t notice your feelings for them.”

As anyone who has hung around English-speaking otaku parts of the Internet knows, “senpai” and more specifically “senpai notice me” are used for people to express the unrequited love they have toward a senior at school or work.

While that’s one possible usage of the word in Japanese, it’s only a small part of it. It’d be like the word “boss” in English only being used to represent a relationship between an employee and their boss; it’s a much broader term than just that.

That Twitter post was the impetus for many other Japanese Twitter users to express their thoughts on “senpai” being used strangely in English. For some it was their first time learning about it, but others already knew:

“I first found out about that usage on the news.”
(News translation below)

A Fan Shows Support for Baseball Player Shohei Otani But…


“Someone who doesn’t notice your feelings for them.”

A word born from the influence of Japanese manga and anime, since many kohai try to get the attention of their senpai but they don’t notice them.

“To see how far “senpai” has spread through otaku culture as an overseas meme, there’s a famous prog-rock Scottish-Burmese musician who’s released three albums called ‘Senpai,’ so that’s the level it’s at.”

“Ohhh, so that’s it! When I checked over my manga that’d been translated into English, they used ‘senpai’ even though I didn’t have it in the original and I was like huh? But this is what was going on! I approve.”

While the vast majority were pleasantly amused by the different use of the word, there were others who were a bit more concerned:

“There needs to be an effort to correct the wrong translations.”
“This is painful.”
“What is this lol just use the word normally!”
“It’s like some sort of otaku pidgin or creole language.”

“Why would they limit the word to just being used by a wallflower girl?”
“This is worse than how ‘hentai’ is used overseas.”

While we disagree with that last netizen’s sentiments, they sort of hit the nail on the head. “Senpai” is just another word that has been borrowed from Japanese, and whose meaning differs from the original.

The same thing happened with “hentai” which means “perverted” in Japanese and has nothing to do with a genre of anime/manga. It also happened with “sushi” which in Japanese refers to a variety of dishes, but now means rice with a filling wrapped in seaweed in most of the world. It also happened with “anime” which is just a general Japanese word for “animation” not only ones produced in Japan.

And it goes the other way too. Tons of English words have been borrowed into Japanese and taken on new meanings too. In fact there are so many of them that there’s a word for them: wasei eigo (Japan-made English).

Languages are constantly changing and evolving, and unless we want to sound like grumpy old people, it’s typically in our best interest to go with the flow and embrace it. Besides, as long as we can still have Senpai Mole to come out of the ground and angrily answer our questions about being a mole, the word is in good hands.

Source: Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
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