Kouhai – Meaning, Origin and Usage

You’ve been working at your job for a few years now. You know the ins and outs about how the whole thing operates. Things are great! Not long later, a new hire comes along and is now working under you. This individual is what some call a “kouhai”. This Japanese originating phrase is often paired with another word you are probably familiar with. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.

Meaning

The word “kouhai” is an honorific Japanese word for your “junior” or someone who is younger than you at work, school, or group. The Japanese language is unique in that it has specific words that must be used in order to maintain a sense of respect and affection to and from those around you. These aren’t meant to be demeaning in any sense. They are simply the words used to describe a person’s relationship with another within a specific setting.

If you have studied Japanese at some point, you will be familiar with “kouhai” and its opposite word “senpai”. Where “kouhai” means junior, “senpai” means senior, as in someone above or older than you in a group setting.

It has also become somewhat popular to use both “kouhai” and “senpai” in a way that one often obsessively seeks the attention of the other. A common trope within the anime community, this dynamic is frequently used to start some sort of romantic relationship with two specific characters.

Example Usage

“Hiro was recently hired, so he is Maya’s kouhai”.

“Sarah has a huge crush on Terry. She is such a kouhai!”

“As his kouhai, you need to be respectful of your boss”.

“We will split into two groups: kouhai and senpai”.

“Even though she is your kouhai, you should still listen to her advice”.

Origin

“Kouhai” has existed within the Japanese language for a very long time, but it was around the 1990s when anime started to become very popular in the West that this phrase started to make its way into common slang. In Japan, “kouhai” is a part of three specific ways of speaking within the Japanese language in order to speak respectfully with one another. It can be extremely offensive if one forgets to use these specific words when speaking to other Japanese people.

In the West, specifically the United States, “kouhai” has become notorious for being the word that goes along with “senpai”. As stated earlier, these words are not uncommon within the anime community because of a specific trope often used in order to start some sort of romance within a show. It is often seen by outsiders as weird and somewhat perverted that those obsessed with anime unironically use “kouhai” to talk about those younger than them.

Phrases Similar to Kouhai

  • Senpai: Japanese word for one’s “senior”.
    • Mark has been working here for years, so he is almost everyone’s senpai.
  • Junior: Someone below you in rank, or in their 11th year of school.
    • After sophomore year, I will be a junior.
  • Sensei: Japanese word for “teacher” or “master”.
    • Sensei teaches me Japanese every day.

Phrases Opposite to Kouhai

  • Senpai: Japanese word for one’s “senior”.
    • While also similar, “senpai” is opposite to “kouhai”.

What is The Correct Saying?

  • Kouhai: koh – oo – hi

Ways People May Incorrectly Say Kouhai

The key thing to note with “kouhai” is to remember that it is strictly used in reference to one’s junior. This applies in almost any context within the Japanese language and is considered rude if not used correctly or even used at all. But in regards to anime, it can be used in its regular definition, but might also refer to a younger character that is trying to get the attention of someone older than them.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Kouhai

  • If you are studying Japanese or even in Japan, “kouhai” is an important word to know in order to navigate the language and understand the culture better.
  • Outside of a Japanese setting, “kouhai” is probably not the correct word to use to refer to one’s junior, but it can still be used.
  • In a western setting, “kouhai” will most likely be used to talk about the common “kouhai/senpai” anime trope, or talk about someone who fits that description.

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