93. Sempai: The Treasures of the Dojo

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.

16 thoughts on “93. Sempai: The Treasures of the Dojo

  1. Great post. When I was just beginning in aikido, the other sempai would always tell me to run over to train with sensei. I would hold back because I felt bad for taking so much of his time compared to the other higher ranking members. Now that there are a few lower ranking members that deem me a sempai, I understand now and urge them to get as much time with sensei as possible. Of course I want to train with him the whole time, but all of that time and skill should be spread around the dojo where it’s most needed. I don’t know about really focusing too much on the responsibility of being a sempai, seems a dangerous road to self glorification through sacrifice, but the idea is true, by becoming a sempai one takes on new levels of responsibility.

  2. The traditional Sempai and Kohai contractual relationship, traditionally practiced is very foreign and in opposition to our western social behavior. I have people tell me it is a form of master and servant. There are all other sorts of criticisms along the lines of abuse, discrimination, nepotism, etc. People are quick to judge, yell foul, and take the Sempai and Kohai structure to the gallows with pitch forks and torches in hand.

    I read comments and hear comments of people who have less of a Sempai and Kohai relationship structure in their dojo, and they complain. It is usually those who are the Kohai, of what they think is abused based on their own personalities, background and personal baggage. Our society has gotten to point of being overtly catering to everyone’s background, needs and sensibilities, the hyper- P.C. and hyper-social sensitive to an extreme. It is koyaanisqatsi; live out of balance. It has gotten to such a level, I call it the age of Witch Hunting. Am surprised Jillian Michaels hasn’t publicly been condemned for being a “bully” losing her credentials and financial empire. The ability for a half way decent attempt at a Sempai and Kohai relationship in this country is rare. What is practiced now in allot dojo’s is simply a bastardization of the Sempai and Kohai relationship and experience.

    WhenI started at my dojo, we had a Sempai and Kohai structure that was close to that of Japan back in the 1950s as you can get in the U.S. It was fairly close to that of Sumo, when it was working at its best (everyone subscribing and conforming). However, it was not perfect all the time, there where those who abused the relationship, but the nail that stands up is hammered down. Over all, under the guidance of the sensei most people sincerely made a go at it. As a result many of us are still close today, even when life has taken us in different directions. I and my Sempai (those who didn’t abuse it) have develop a bond and friendship where we can depend on each other, like family (but with out all that holiday dinner drama). My Sempais still buy the meals when we meet, and I can call on them when I need help. I still respect and cater to them in the dojo when we are able to train. I show them respect, I take their advise, I cater them in the dojo, I will go and get, for instance, a practice weapon for them, if they need one, or offer them mine. I show my respect for them and their seniority. Being a Sempai myself, I don’ t abuse the position, but expect the same treatment I give to my Sempai from my Kohai. If my Kohai don’t afford me the same treatment than there will be no personal friend or training relationship on my end.

    I think a major component that makes the Sempai and Kohai relationship work is, each individual’s personality. My sensei termed what I am trying to say as Kokoro. Without Kokoro, the Sempai and Kohai relationship would be nothing but taking advantage of the situation and of another. Often us in the West associates or practice the Sempai and Kohai as a Fraternal thing where hazing and acceptance is tied hand in hand. The Sempai and Kohai relationship I keep in mind, is an age old traditional Japanese form of social order of seniority tied into the feudal military structure of Japan. That is based in Confusion, the Sempai and Kohai have very strong ancient Confucianism components of respect for social hierarchy and familial piety components. I keep that in mind, including the protocol and etiquette (to be respectful i.e. rei) as my guide in my Sempai and Kohai relationships.

  3. “Is the Sempai and Kohai relationship so important to learning a martial art…isn’t a bit weird? I mean come on, is ass kissing and being subservient some weird frat thing really necessary!” That line of thought is pretty common in my experience with traditional arts and non-traditional students.

    Is the Sempai and Kohai relationship vital to learning a Koryu skill? Are other types of relating to other students acceptable? If you don’t experience the proper Sempai or Kohai relationship can you really say you are Koryu? Or is it just the Japanese way of doing things that if you understand the Japanese will be lucky as Wayne describes?

  4. Wayne, I hope that you are well? I have been following your writing but do not always reply or post a comment on your blog. However, I do pass them along to all my MA acquaintances and Tweet it as @NewEnglandBudo.

    1. Jim,

      Thanks for the note, and I hope you continue to enjoy some of my musings and half-formed ideas.


  5. To conclude my comments, is the Sempai and Kohai relationship vital to learning a Koryu skill? And if you don’t practice properly the Sempai and Kohai relationship accurately are you still true to being Koryu? To take the last question first, yes, and no. It all depends on one’s kokoro and absence of the Koryu Ego.

    I personally think most people are not interested in practicing the Sempai and Kohai relationship accurately. Most reject it; criticize it, denounce it, inveigh against it. But ,when practiced under the best what comes from it, is as Wayne refers to being a treasured. Or as I put it, the Sempai and Kohai relationship results in a strong lasting friendship.

    Also, Kokoro can be developed as a result of studying Koryu that ties into proper observation of the Sempai and Kohai relationship. The major factor that interferes with the Sempai and Kohai relationship is “Koryu Ego.” Malignant mind set that rebels against the proper respect and observance of the Sempai and Kohai relationship. Koryus practiced today have lost any viable benchmark test of physical skill. As a result, besting another is left to the game of quantifiable knowledge. Where there is a competition based on the amount of trivia and the smallest minutia of knowledge becomes the determining factor in a victory over another. Yes, the Koryu Ego is born out of a nerdy pursuits. The Koryu Ego then, strips or impedes both the growth and development of Kokoro dooming a positive and productive Sempai and Kohai relationship. Such an ego is highly proficient in developing a small mind and pettiness.

    Am I also, looking through rose colored glasses? Because anyone looking at Sumo can see the Sempai and Kohai relationship is not so grand and is rather abusive. It is true, Sumo by the standards of many is steeped in abuse, but it has been for thousands of years. Does that make it right, no. What it does among other things creates a tough competitor (right or wrong), breaks the newbies down and builds them up again. Do we call Jillian Michaels an abusive bullying bitch? No we praiser her, calling her America’s “toughest” trainer. Why? Because she gets amazing results out of people, and that is what the whole Sumo system is designed to do, get results. Sumo is a competitive full contact sport. In it’s training design, they brake new recruits down and to build them up.

    Isn’t there a fine line between abuse and motivation, look at Bobby Knight for example. He crossed the line. Coach Knight crossed a clear line into abuse, by grabbing a player around the neck. Fraternities cross the line hazing recruits for the sadistic joy of it, to harm, humiliate and degrade others. There is nothing in either of these situations where one’s limits are pushed, or character tested to reach a goal, to build someone up. Now very few, Koryu dojos are in line with properly building a person up; testing and pushing a person’s limits and capabilities then going beyond those limits and capabilities a tack where the Sempai play a large and influential role.

    The other day a Kohai that still keeps in contact said to me that I was the biggest asshole in the dojo ever. He said, I was pushy, demanding, unforgiving, rude, unpleasant, and a freaking jerk. As being a teenager he walk into the dojo for the first time thinking he was going to learn martial arts to kick ass. He said, after the first 15min in class, spending it with me, he was rethinking this decision because I was such an asshole to him, in his mind. He said, I never let up on being an asshole, and for years he resented it. But, that was what exactly he needed at the time, and is very grateful that I was the biggest asshole Sempai he had. I laughed and said, yep.

    Now I wasn’t alway an “asshole” Sempai to everyone, in fact just the opposite to others. I was very accommodating and not tough on them at all. But, those are the ones who ended up never respecting me and develop the dreaded “Koryu Ego.”

    Tough circumstances build character, and people don’t respect you if you coddle them, cater to them, and give them everything on a silver platter, it also makes them soft and weak; spare the rod, spoil the child – it is about disciple. Knowing the difference from abusive and toughness/discipline is critical, in my opinion. Add to that not everyone can be properly “tough” either and that is a danger in itself. But rejecting the idea of proper disciple by calling it abuse, is an abuse of itself. Sadly, I see far too many people do just that.

    The Sempai and Kohai relationship to function properly must have the properly understood balance to reap the maximum benefits. It isn’t a default part of being in a Koryu. Rather it is a unique relationship that is within a Koryu that has the best interest of both the Senior and Junior in mind. It is something that is founded in disciple and respect. The relationship is not a sadistic ego power play, or a means to subvert discipline by yelling abusive. Being a Sempai takes allot of responsibility and is acted in the best interest of the Kohai, A Kohai takes allot of respect and willingness for discipline. And, if it all goes right, the result is a life long friendship and respect which will develop between both the Sempai and Kohai .

  6. Interesting post. The sempai/kohai relationship can be misinterpreted severely and complicated also. A friend of mine said there was a new white belt guy at his dojo who did not like any tips or help from anyone and stated eventually that he could not be corrected except by the sensei. This student I think thought he was sempai to everyone there because he started in the early 90’s and despite being a low ranked white belt claimed several thousands of hours on the mat (!?!). The guy was not listening to anyone and even trying to hurt people in getting the waza to work. The sempai at the dojo were not trying to belittle him or critique him but give him a different perspective or better ways on how to do the waza. The new guy saw this as an ego thing on the sempai’s part which was misinterpreted. The new guys cup was pretty full and his ego would not let him learn from the sempai at the dojo, which is where I feel you learn to most. Ego makes for fun times in the dojo!

    This From my perspective sometimes you learn more from the Sempai on the vital and small details of waza or kata rather than the Sensei who has better knowledge and form but has moved far beyond the “little things” and details. The Sempai are often still working on the fine details and polishing the technique so they can sometimes explain it in detail better.

    1. Thanks Jaco for that observation. Yes, I was just thinking, the sempai are like the sargeants in a military unit. The captain or lieutenant is the person in charge, overall, but he has to be aware of general objectives, communicate with his superiors on strategy. The sargeant is more capable of focusing on specific tactics and working with the soldiers in getting the captain’s orders completed. Not listening to the sargeant because he’s not the captain is a disaster for any military unit.

  7. Hi Muromoto sensei,
    Just thought I would add that treating sempai as a rank not a relationship isn’t all that new. Back in 82-83 Kyokushinkai at least in the US had it students refer to all shodan as sempai and all nidan and above as sensei. I loved Kyokushinkai but as I got older and a little broader experienced I did realize that they did strange things with the Japanese language like putting titles before names. I still wish they were that huge unified organization that the used to be so I could find one of their dojo near me. By the way there was no extra fee to be called sempai. Respectfully, Len McCoy

    1. Hi Leonard and others,

      Love the blog btw, Muramoto sensei – longtime lurker. Herein lies the problem, in that underqualified students sometimes tend to think they can go around correcting every movement of those with less experience. This is fine if they are technically correct with what they are explaining, but quite often we see students in the west who “still have a ways to go”. In some cases, it’s just their ego speaking to the kohai and a flex of muscle.

      My background is kendo, after 9 years I still feel uneasy about correccting others on technical aspects, as I still feel like I am a beginner. I do what I can when pointing out rei, or handling other aspects for sensei that I feel that I understand.

      I live in Japan now, so luckily I don’t have to worry about these things and just concentrate on my own shugyo – we have several nanadan sensei for that. But one thing I will point out, here my kohai rarely mention anything in the vein of “coaching” here. Again, that is left for sensei to do. This could be because I am still seen as an outsider, or it could be because there is just no need to compromise a student’s progress with information that could be slightly wrong.

      Horses for courses, though, perhaps in some arenas it’s more suitable to pitch in with instruction.

      Hopefully I can make 4dan next year, after that I may feel more comfortable being sempai if I am back in the west (Australia). But honestly, at 3dan, I just don’t feel qualified to correct others.

  8. Sorry just noticed my typo. Meant to say my “sempai” rarely mention anything in the vain of coaching here.

    And just to clarify in case anyone is wondering, there are many students in Japan who also have a “ways to go”. I just think that, culturally, they are less prone to giving out coaching advice and will usually leave that to their older peers/sensei.

    1. Andy,

      Understood. Some dojo in Japan have different standards for “sempai” than others. In my iai dojo, there were several tens of godan and above who technically weren’t teachers but my sempai. Then you had the assistant teachers who themselves were rokudan, nanadan, all over the place. Anyone under weren’t considered “seasoned” enough to offer much advice. Here back home, it’s a totally different scale of reference.

  9. I enjoyed your post. I’m Sempai to three students currently and have three students who are my Sempai. One is the egotistical bully type who Sensei has to ask to follow along because he’s disrespectful and thinks he can do whatever whenever. It’s frustrating on the rare occasion where he has gotten to “teach”. He misses class often, so when he does get to teach, he’s completely out of touch with what the students in front of him need and it’s as if he’s pulling random things from the air. The kohai need to be improving specific things to grade soon and he’ll get them doing everything but what they need and what Sensei has recommended. Blows my mind. Personality wise we clash also, but I refuse to be that student that starts a yelling match. I think that wouldn’t be good for the kohai below me. He’s been told to fix how he dresses and won’t. It’s extremely difficult to have any kind of respect for him. I don’t know if I should take him aside and call him on crap or just ignore him. Given that he seems desperate for attention, I’m leaning toward ignoring him. Don’t want to “reward” bad behaviour. At the same time, I don’t want to be seen as a someone who allows others to be disrespectful to me.

    1. Raeanne, I’m not in your particular group so I can’t really give any concrete advice, unfortunately. But think about this situation as if you were in a workplace. How would you deal with such a situation at work? It really sounds like you need to talk to your main teacher about this situation, and remind him that he may lose dues-paying students if this situation is not remedied, not just you, but other students who do not like this one person’s attitude and behavior. Rank in a dojo is a responsibility, not a permission to act like a jerk.
      –Wayne Muromoto

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