In any dojo, the sensei, the main teacher, is the central pillar. He sets the pace, level and atmosphere. But if the sensei is the central pillar in the grand tent of a training hall, the treasures are good sempai; senior students.
I use that adjective of “good” because mediocre ones or lackadaisical ones really don’t matter much, one way or another, and bad ones are destructive of the dojo environment, causing a degeneration in training quality even if the teacher has all the best intentions. I’ve experienced all three types of sempai both as a student and a teacher.
First, some definitions: sempai is a Japanese term meaning one’s seniors in an educational or work environment. In public schools, for example, a sempai can be a student of your own high school who graduated a couple of years ahead of you. He will always be your sempai, no matter what, because of his/her seniority to you, and you are the kohai, or junior student. It is also used in an office environment, such as if a fellow clerk has more experience than you in the same position by some years, or even months or weeks. In martial arts, therefore, a sempai is someone who has been training longer than you.
It tracks, somewhat, the levels of ranking, although not quite entirely. Students who rise up quickly to surpass more senior students may have a higher rank, but in the Japanese frame of mind, that still won’t make you sempai to the more experienced student who may not be as technically and athletically talented. This has implications which I’ll get into later.
Being a sempai is a fluid, dynamic position dependent on individual relationships within the group. You can be sempai to one person, but a kohai to another. Think of it like being an older brother to a younger sibling, but a younger brother to an older sibling. It’s your place in the hierarchy of who showed up first.
Because of the relative nature of being a sempai, I found it curious when a friend of mine returned from a seminar he gave to a karate group. He said he was somewhat taken aback when, at a dinner hosted by the club, the sensei gave out “sempai” certificates, with “sempai” patches that the students could stick on their training outfits, along with the usual belt promotions. I guess the teacher figured out another money stream by devising the sempai “ranks” and patches. But it really makes no sense, because you can be a sempai to one person and a kohai to another. Then again, I’ve seen “sempai” patches affixed to the sleeves of karate students in other organizations, so, well, maybe I’m behind the times and need to get with the newfangled schemes to make more side money.
The thing with being a sempai is that, in general, you are expected to have a wider knowledge of the workings of the group from your more extensive experience, even if it’s but a month or two more than your nearest kohai. Beyond the basic technical expertise of the system, you know what went on before, in the past, before the newbies showed up. You know where the skeletons are in the closet, so to speak. And that knowledge is constantly being built up as you add to it, year after year, with additional experiences. As you age and mature, you also bring to bear your personal, professional and other experiences as well, rounding out your knowledge with what we can describe as a kind of wisdom, a view of the wider implications of what you are pursuing within the dojo. It comes with age, and it comes with maturity. That doesn’t quite exactly correlate with technical expertise, you see. So getting old is generally a pain the rear end, but at least age should give you a more mature outlook on life. Perhaps.
Within a dojo, therefore, you could be a 30-year-old and sempai to a 60-year-old new student, because you know more about the dojo and its workings than the beginner. On the other hand, being his sempai in martial arts doesn’t necessarily make him your kohai in other things outside the dojo. He could be an experienced medical doctor and you could be just finishing up medical school, so in that case, he’s your sempai when it comes to the professional world. So you see how relative being a sempai is? That’s why I’m not so sure patches that declare you a “sempai” are really appropriate. One person’s sempai is another person’s kohai. And that same kohai of yours could be a sempai to you in some other endeavor.
Another misunderstanding might be the role of a sempai. Primarily, having the designation over other newbie students is not like having carte blanche to bully them, abuse them, or denigrate them. In Japanese culture, a sempai is like an older brother or sister. And that means an observant and protective older brother, and you assume huge responsibilities, not privileges. You have to make sure the newbies are learning properly, they have the proper attire, they are following the proper etiquette. If they screw up, it’s as much your fault as it is theirs because they were supposed to have been prepped by you.
Wait, you say. Isn’t all that teaching the role of the teacher? Yes and no. A teacher sets the standards, yes, but as a student progresses, he should also be internalizing the technical, social and etiquette aspects of the dojo so that he also expresses them. Sempai become roles models, like the main sensei, and they assume teaching responsibilities both informally and formally. As sempai mature, the teacher can focus less on the minutiae of some basic technical skills and dojo formalities and move on to teach more advanced processes to students. If the teacher is forever pulling back in order to teach everyone at all different levels, that’s not the optimum use of his time or energy, when sempai should shoulder some of the burden and help with the teaching.
In educational theory classes, I learned the sempai-kohai relationship is very much like a peer relationship between students. Many people think pedagogy is one to many; one teacher is the sole arbiter and instructor to many children in the class, but close observation of successful classrooms show that students with more skill and experiences augment learning by helping other students. In a classroom of homogenous-aged students, it’s not so much sempai-kohai but those with skills helping those with lesser skills “get it.” In a Japanese environment, it extends beyond one’s peer group to include those senior to you and junior to you in a learning environment who help you with your training and education.
In educational theory, the best type of learning occurs when you have not only a healthy teacher to student(s) relationship, but you also have peer to peer teaching, or what one of my educational professors (Ann Bayer), called “collaborative apprenticeship” learning. It’s not just one-to-many (one sensei to many students), it’s a multifaceted many-to-many.
In my own ryu, good sempai are a necessity. My main teacher and his top students do not make a full time living teaching martial arts. They have successful professional careers, and there are times when they have to miss regular training dates. My teacher is a landscape architect, and he has enough sempai to carry through any training days he may miss without worry. Likewise, his top two students in Japan who run dojo in Tokyo are high-level officials in the banking industry and non-government organizations, so they, too, rely on sempai to cover for them when work precludes training.
Sempai are, indeed, treasures in these cases, because they build up a level of expertise and knowledge that is not dependent solely on one person, one teacher. They also are, in a way, training to become sensei of their own dojo, so being sempai is a step along the way to that independence. Not that every sempai wants to be his own teacher with his own dojo, but they should be training towards having that ability in case something happens to their sensei.
Bad sempai tend to see their roles more as an ego thing, not so much a responsibility to shepherd the newbies along. I was in one very small group whose teacher was one of the finest gentlemen I ever had the privilege of studying under. But at the time, his senior students were a volatile mix. On days when the teacher couldn’t make it to practice, the senior students tried to lead the class. Inevitably, it used to lead to heated arguments between two of them, with them yelling and swearing at each other at the top of their lungs, and the third senior just playing passive-aggressive and wandering off to practice by his own self in a corner. I loved that sensei. I couldn’t stand the sempai, so I left the group.
I’ve also seen indifferent sempai. They don’t really harm the dojo, but they don’t contribute in any meaningful way. They are in it to train themselves, and don’t look much past that to helping other students. For them, even though they’ve had years of exposure to their teacher, they still infantilize their own selves and look to the teacher for every piece of guidance and teaching, and don’t understand the responsibilities that come with being a senior member.
It vexes me, but it’s not something a teacher can easily correct, like a problem in a kata. That’s because you have to correct the way a person perceives his entire world and how he fits into it. It’s not just how they interact in a budo setting, it’s how they of interact with other people in any social environment. Some people tend to be good sempai and some don’t because some very naturally accept responsibility and some just shuck it off. Is the attitude one of give me, give me, give me, or is it a mutual give and take?
I’ve also been blessed by and large with some very good examples of sempai, too numerous to list individually, both in Japan and in the States. They have been sempai to me, and I have managed to train up some good sempai. The sempai to me have given me insights and subtle details to the budo I study that often are glossed over by the sensei. Through their guidance, I’ve managed to deepen my grasp of those arts.
I was also lucky to have cultivated several senior students of mine who are great examples of sempai. Unfortunately, they moved on after reaching a higher level of expertise because they were also burdened with personal and professional responsibilities. To the ones who are most capable, go the most responsibilities.
It’s not a cultural thing. The good sempai I am discussing are both Japanese natives and non-Japanese. One of my own sempai that I trained, who I ended up treating like a younger brother, went on to be a kind of sempai in his military career. After three tours of Afghanistan, including leading his own cadre of soldiers and training them to survive under his leadership, he’s now Stateside training a whole new generation of soldiers in his role as a sempai of soldiering. But he has those skills. When he trained with me, he watched, listened, learned. He learned the techniques of the school, but also he paid careful attention to how I positioned myself while teaching, how I mentioned some things in an offhanded way as a suggestion but he picked up my tone of voice to understand the deeper implications and expressions, how I worked with the students and tried to make them focus on particular aspects. He absorbed all those things internally and became an embodiment of the ryu, not just a decent but superficial mimic. He took all those skills of observation and learning and applied them in a life-threatening arena.
Can the system of sempai-kohai be abused? Certainly, as the example of the yelling sempai demonstrates. I have heard of some professional martial arts instructors making their senior students teach classes for free, without any remuneration, as a kind of “training” to be a sempai. That’s taking advantage of captive labor, if it is overused. Abuses of this system abound, even in Japan. But the case is more often that having a good group of sempai in a dojo is a boon. They add to the entire learning environment, they enhance the sensei’s teaching, and they give the newer students alternative ways to understand a lesson. Good sempai are a treasure, and should be nurtured.