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Difference Between Senpai and Sempai

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Japanese culture is predicated on respect. People in the country go to great lengths to display courtesy and grace. A common way to show respect to one’s seniors is through special words called honorifics. “Senpai” or “sempai” are two such courteous titles that the Japanese use in academic or business settings.

How is “Senpai” different from “Sempai”?

To a fluent Japanese speaker, these words are virtually the same. The main difference is only apparent in how the sounds (せんぱい) are translated to English, as there is always a level of approximation in translating Japanese sounds into Roman (Latin) letters. 

No distinction exists between “n” and “m” when saying “senpai/sempai” in Japanese; while no natural “mp” sound exists in the language’s phonetics, both pronunciations are so similar that either is practically valid.

What does “Senpai” mean?

Senpai (先輩, せんぱい), translated to “senior,” is an honorific title used by a person to refer to their superiors, whether they are senior members of a business or club, or upperclassmen from school. Age, rather than experience, is the primary factor in evaluating who is a senpai. 

This term is partnered with “kohai” (後輩), meaning “junior;” in effect, a senpai always has a kohai. The creation of a senpai-kohai bond supports a relationship dynamic that expects a kohai to show respect, loyalty and deference, and for a senpai to offer counsel and mentorship in return.

What does “Sempai” mean?

Sempai is the same word spelled differently. While the character in Japanese hiragana which informs the word’s pronunciation, “ん”, corresponds to the “n” sound in English, the sound itself can easily be spoken and heard as an “m.”

Another Japanese word that shares this oddity is tenpura (天ぷら), which refers to the popular battered and deep-fried dish of fish, vegetables or other meat. The word is more commonly known as “tempura.”

Differences between Senpai and Sempai

Phonetics

The actual pronunciation of the word せんぱい is “senpai,” as the ん symbol in hiragana is translated to “n” in Roman script. Ergo, while the two forms are valid, “senpai” is the proper translated spelling of the word.

The confusion between senpai and sempai stems from the tendency for the ん sound to change into “m” when used before certain consonants, such as “p,” where the mouth slips up and pronounces “np” as “mp.” Even native Japanese speakers encounter this quirk, especially when talking quickly.

Usage

In native Japanese, one can hear the word as either senpai or sempai, as the “mp/np” distinction only arises when translated. 

Senpai is the more widespread translation of the word. In officially-translated media, such as anime, light novels and manga, it is the form most commonly encountered. 

Translations into “sempai” are more prevalent among non-native speakers, such as those in online communities dedicated to anime or other Japanese media. 

Validity

Using either form of the word in a Japanese conversation is valid, and would be considered as little more than a subtle difference in pronunciation. 

In translated texts, senpai is the more commonly-adopted form. People may likely only spot the “sempai” form of the word in informal conversations online, such as in message boards and chatrooms, as well as in hobby blogs from otaku or other enthusiasts.

Comparison Chart: Senpai vs Sempai

AreasSenpaiSempai
PhoneticsPronounces “n” and “p” properlyMorphs the “n” and “p” sound into “mp”
UsageMainstream formMore common among non-native speakers
ValidityStandard translationInformal translation

How are Senpai and Sempai similar?

Senpai and sempai refer to the same word in Japanese, transliterated into two slightly different forms. You can use either form in speech or in writing and still be understood.

FAQ

What is a “paisen”?

Paisen is simply “senpai” with the two syllables switched. People use it as a more casual and playful way of addressing their senpais.

Can a woman be a senpai?

Yes! As an honorific, “senpai” can apply to both genders; it is quite common for juniors and subordinates to form senpai-kohai bonds with either male or female senpais. The word is quite versatile as a term of respect, deference, and endearment, and often signifies a degree of trust from the kohai.

Conclusion 

The Japanese use “senpai” (先輩) as an honorific to convey respect and deference to their upperclassmen or superiors in group settings. 

The (ん) character in its pronunciation guide (せんぱい) corresponds to the “n” sound in English, but it can sound like “m” when paired with the consonant “p,” causing some people, typically non-native speakers in online communities, to transliterate the word into “sempai.”

While the difference is only present when translating 先輩 into English or other languages in the Latin script, “senpai” is the standard form used in most officially-translated media.

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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
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