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What is Sunbae in Korean?


Explaining the concept of “sunbae” in Korean culture is essential for understanding the social structures and hierarchies that exist in this country. In this article, we will explore the meaning of sunbae, its implications in different contexts, and how it relates to other concepts like age, seniority, and respect.

Etymology and Meaning

The word “sunbae” (선배) comes from the Chinese characters “先輩”, which means “one who came before”. In Korean, it refers to a person who has more experience or seniority than another in a particular field or relationship. Sunbae can be used as a noun or a verb, depending on the context. For example, “he is my sunbae” or “I sunbae him”.

Academic Context

In Korean universities and schools, sunbae refers to students who are in higher grades or have been in the institution longer than others. They are expected to guide and mentor their hoobae (juniors), who show them respect and follow their advice. Sunbae-hoobae relationships are crucial for networking and building connections in Korean society.

Workplace Context

In Korean companies, sunbae refers to employees who have been working for longer than others or have higher positions. They are often seen as mentors and guides for their kyeongja (junior colleagues). Sunbae-kyeongja relationships are important for building trust and loyalty within the company.

Social Context

In Korean society, sunbae can refer to anyone who is older or has more experience than oneself. It is a way of showing respect and acknowledging the other person’s achievements and knowledge. Sunbae relationships can exist in various settings, such as sports teams, clubs, and hobbies.

Age and Seniority

In Korean culture, age and seniority are highly valued and respected. Older people are expected to be wiser and more experienced than younger ones, and thus deserving of respect and deference. Sunbae relationships are often based on age or length of experience, but not always. Sometimes, a younger person can be a sunbae if they have achieved more in a particular field or relationship.

Respect and Hierarchy

Sunbae relationships are rooted in the Confucian idea of hierarchy and respect for authority. In Korean society, people are expected to show respect to their elders, superiors, and those who have achieved more than them. Sunbae-hoobae or sunbae-kyeongja relationships are based on mutual respect and trust.

Challenges and Issues

Sunbae culture is not without its problems. Sometimes, sunbae can abuse their power and mistreat their hoobae or kyeongja. There have been cases of bullying, harassment, and discrimination based on sunbae-hoobae or sunbae-kyeongja relationships. It is important to maintain a balance between respect for seniority and the rights of individuals.

Differences with Western Culture

The concept of sunbae has no direct equivalent in Western culture. While there are similar ideas of mentorship, guidance, and hierarchy in other societies, the emphasis on age and seniority is unique to Korean culture. In Western countries, meritocracy and individual achievement are often valued more than seniority.

Expressions and Phrases

In Korean language, there are many expressions and phrases related to sunbae culture. Some examples include “sunbae-nim” (a more formal way of addressing a sunbae), “sunbae-jangnim” (a sunbae who is also a boss or manager), and “sunbae-seonbae” (two sunbaes who are in the same year or grade).


In conclusion, understanding the concept of sunbae is crucial for navigating Korean society and building relationships with others. Sunbae culture is deeply rooted in the Confucian values of hierarchy, respect, and authority, but it is not without its challenges and issues. By showing respect for seniority and acknowledging the achievements of others, we can create a more harmonious and respectful society.


1. Park, J. (2008). The role of sunbae in Korean university student culture. Journal of College Student Development, 49(3), 223-236.

2. Kim, Y. K., & Lee, J. H. (2017). Sunbae-hoobae relationships in Korean society: An analysis of their cultural underpinnings and dynamics. Journal of Youth Studies, 20(4), 460-475.

3. Lee, D. (2015). Sunbae culture in Korean companies: Its characteristics and implications for organizational communication. International Journal of Business Communication, 52(4), 491-514.

What is Sunbae meaning Korean?

The Korean word “sunbae” translates to “senior” in English.

Can you call a girl Sunbae?

After developing a friendship, honorifics are typically dropped in Korean culture. If someone is your donggi (close friend), you can address them as unnie, oppa, hyung, or noona depending on their gender and seniority. Male seniors often appreciate being called “oppa” by their female juniors, but some women may prefer using the term sunbae instead to avoid any perceived flirtation.

What do Korean call their girlfriend?

In Korean, the word for girlfriend is 여자친구 (yeo-ja-chin-gu), which is a combination of the words 여자 (yeoja) meaning “woman” and 친구 (chingu) meaning “friend”. This term is commonly used in Korean to refer to someone’s romantic partner who is a woman.

Does oppa mean boyfriend?

Oppa does not necessarily mean boyfriend. It is a respectful and friendly term used to refer to an older brother or man. However, it can also be used to refer to a boyfriend or husband in some contexts.

What is the female version of oppa?

If you are a male and addressing an older woman, the term you use is “Noona,” while a female would use “Unni” to refer to an older woman. The equivalents of these terms are used in place of “Oppa” to address men who are older than you.

What is oppa in Korean?

The word “oppa” has been adopted from the Korean language, and it refers to an older brother or a male friend who is close to a female.

Impact on Korean Society

The concept of sunbae has a significant impact on Korean society and its social structures. It creates a sense of community and belonging among people who share the same experiences or interests. Sunbae relationships can also help individuals navigate their careers, build networks, and gain valuable insights from those who have gone before them. However, it can also reinforce unequal power dynamics and perpetuate discrimination based on age, gender, or other factors.

Evolution of Sunbae Culture

The sunbae culture in Korea has evolved over time, reflecting changes in society and the economy. In the past, sunbae-hoobae relationships were mainly based on age and seniority, but now they are more influenced by skills, achievements, and personal connections. Moreover, the rise of the gig economy and freelance work has challenged traditional sunbae-kyeongja relationships in the workplace.

Role of Education

Education plays a crucial role in shaping sunbae culture in Korea. Schools and universities often emphasize respect for seniority and encourage students to build strong sunbae-hoobae relationships. However, some argue that this can lead to a lack of critical thinking and individualism among students. There is also a growing movement for more egalitarian relationships between teachers and students, challenging traditional hierarchies.

Cultural Exchange

The concept of sunbae has gained increasing attention outside of Korea through cultural exchange programs and the popularity of Korean pop culture. Many non-Korean fans of K-pop or K-dramas adopt the term to describe their relationship with older or more experienced fans. This cross-cultural exchange highlights both the strengths and limitations of the concept of sunbae, as it is adapted to different cultural contexts.

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