I take titles very seriously. I’m from a generation that took titles seriously. Things like writer, teacher, speaker and more were not meaningless. Which is why I found a particular aspect of Japanese culture and language that I liked I ran with it. I love suffixes. Using -san, -chan, -kun can say so much about a person and your relationship to them. While using -sama, -imoto, or -ototo also can speak volumes. Today I want to talk about three words I use a lot and why they mean so much to me: senpai, sensei and kouhai.
We’ll pause here to go over some grammar and vocabulary! In Japanese, suffixes follow a proper name. We’ll use my panel name as an example and use a suffix that people would know me as:
Y’all thought I was gonna use -sama. I can wait for that. In the Japanese language, these suffixes stand in for words like: Mrs. Miss. Mister or Doctor. They can denote familiarity, respect, position or seniority.
Now for some vocabulary: for the sake of this post: we’ll focus on the three words I plan to elaborate more on.
Senpai: typically an upperclassman or person a year or to is slightly ahead of you in a career position.
Sensei: can be used to describe someone with superiority or seniority to you or an expert in their field.
Kouhai: a student or underclassman in school or a new employee in a company.
Longtime readers of the blog or attendees of my panels know that I use these words a lot. I am a proud senpai to many kouhai and I am a proud kouhai to my sepais and my sensei. I have made a chart to make things easier but here is the long and short of it. I am the senpai to my now former anime club members and a few others who have asked for me to guide them in the ways of conventions, cosplay and anime. I am in fact a kouhai to my three senpais and I have one sensei above all of them. Outlined it looked like this. I have my kouhai from my anime club and the ones I’ve gained now. I have my three senpais: Nancy, Patricia and Cris (who is no longer with us [that still feels weird to say]) and I have my one sensei: Jason. There is one disputed senpai: Jessica, who joined because she was a friend of Nancy.
I’ve even made a chart for you.
So why are we having this conversation? Well, at heart, I take titles seriously. I say that I am a writer not just because I write but because I went to the old fancy college to study ye olde book-learning. I say that I am a panelist because I regularly panel. I don’t just throw words around because without meaning, words are strange.
And I know many of my fellow…”fans” of Japanese culture (more on this soon) will throw these words around with a little less care (I know I’m generalizing, don’t sue me).
Here’s where I’ll explain myself. I won’t be that level of gatekeeper that every Japanese word must be handled with a great deal of respect: that’s why I’m going out of my way to say that this is just my connection to the word. I just know I’m a formalist and don’t go around throwing these words around.
Now, my connection to these words is of course rooted in anime and a love of Japanese culture. When I first met Nancy and Patricia and Cris, they were all I wanted to be as a fan, cosplayer, writer and more and I asked for them to take me under their tutelage.
When I took over the anime club in college in a spectacular coup d’etat, I instilled in my club members that I wanted to be their guide to this world of media criticism, Japanese culture and anime. I showed them my competence and expertise and was humble when I didn’t know something. I was proud when they called me “senpai” and I was happy to call them “kouhai”. I took care of them. I made breakfast, I cooked lunches, I became a confidant and friend. And I learned so much from my kouhai who encouraged me to be less of a stick in the mud about newer anime and brought me out of my shell as I dealt with the loss of my mother.
And in turn, my senpais made me who I am now. Their kindness, empathy and skill inspire me, motivate me to be better. They are there for me when I am down and guide me when I have no idea what I am doing (which is more often than one would think).
I can still remember the night my longtime partner left me and I texted Nancy-senpai. She and another senpai of mine, Jessica came over immediately. They took me out to ensure that I ate because breaking up often means not eating human food in favor of hoping tears could provide nutritional value and cake frosting to mask the pain. They made sure I was okay. They checked on me. They took care of me and ensured that I was okay to go back to work before leaving me to my then solitary apartment.
I’ll tell another story because it feels appropriate to tell people just how close I am to my senpais. Cris was magnetic. Cris was an amazing panelist, cosplayer and a brilliant and patient soul. I regret that it took so long for us to get as close as we did. But Cris was to me the embodiment of what it meant to be a senpai. She was always there to listen and provide feedback that was so helpful. Before she died, one of the last conversations she had was to push me to try new things and new panels and at new conventions. She celebrated my success, she was proud of me and hearing her say she was proud of me may be one of the best parts of my existence and she was wonderful. She was smart, bright and wonderful and I miss her dearly.
I carry my title of senpai sacredly. Whenever I’m on stage, I do my best to be authority but also personable. I love it when people come up to give me hugs or tell me that my honesty helped them through a difficult time. I love being able to be not just a screeching harpy or a stern man yelling but someone who has learned and struggled and made mistakes. Every hug I give when I’m off the stage, every time I answer a message late or happily let my panels spill into the hallways after my set is done.
It isn’t just a power trip, it isn’t about ego: it’s about wanting to be the best person I possibly can be and wanting to share the knowledge I have and also wanting desperately to be better and constantly improve.
My senpais and my sensei are more than just friends to me. And my kouhai mean the world to me and I will defend them with my life.
It’s a sacred sort of bond. A title given and earned. It’s a strange sort of relationship; the purest expression of how found families work. It’s done with love and trust and passion. It’s late phone calls, early messages and maintaining relationships because anything worth having is worth working for.
That’s what these words mean to me.