An overview of the Japanese Sempai system

(As always I want to emphasize I am not an expert on this subject, so please do your own research on this subject and feel free to comment where I am wrong.)


Sempai! This is a word that you see in everyday life in Japan. Manga, anime and dramas all use the word and it is even seeping into western culture with the weeaboo and otaku crowds. But what is this “sempai” word and what does it mean and where does it come from, that is what I intend to tell you about today.


The history of this word is long and would take a very long time to correctly go through every point, therefore I encourage you to do your own research and use this blog entry as a jumping off point. Once you have done your own research I would love to know what you have found so please share your knowledge on this blog.


The history of Sempai can quite literally be traced back to the very beginnings of structured Japanese culture, especially in the samurai and warlord days where there was a hierarchical / caste system in place. Now at this time the word sempai didn’t exist, I am not sure what word, if any did exist. The hierarchical / caste system was prevalent in Japan Until the Meiji era when Japan was forced to open its boarders and deal with the world and become more westernized.


But it wasn’t until after WW2 where we see the true sempai system take form. There are a few economic books written about post war Japan and the building of the economy up until the bubble burst in the 1990’s that document the creation of the sempai system indirectly. There is a good resource list with some of those books on the subject available at wikepedia.


Before and during WW2 Japan was run with the imperial family as the head of the country and the ranks cascaded down from there. The war led to the ranks in society being solidified into an early sempai system. After WW2 this system was shattered but in order to keep order and build the economy businesses were created with the same military ranking system.


Many of the older leaders of the army, while being disgraced because of the loss in the war were brought into businesses and schools because their leadership skills were needed in the modern business environment. This set up the sempai system we know today. The sempai system in business is quite literally a senior system where people are considered sempai by the time in a business not by the skill set that they have.


The system was also incorporated into the schooling system to help build students responsibility and mold them into model citizens for the future of Japan. From then the sempai system has been around and has never changed. In schools the sempai system is simply a junior & senior system where sempai are responsible for helping with clubs and guiding their junior or “cohai” to be responsible students.


Overseas the Sempai system has been spun in a romantic light because of manga, dramas and other forms of media where the “sempai” is the source of attraction for the “cohai” setting up a Romeo & Juliet style story line. However as I have explained, it isn’t really a romantic ideal, just a cultural phenomenon that has been romanticized.


In the end there is a lot I had to skip over in order to keep this blog entry under the length of a university dissertation. The Sempai system has a long history dating back to well beyond WW2 and continues even to the present day. Is it a good system, or does it place too much rigidity on people, it is hard to say. However, it is a cultural phenomenon that all those in Japan or interested in Japan are sure to run into.


What do you think about the sempai system? Is it a good system or is it a bad system? Is there a similar system in other countries? I would love to know, please share in this blog.


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