Essay from Sensei R. Heins, Northwest Michigan Aikikai

An experience during a recent visit to Tokyo got me thinking about the meaning and implications of the sempai–kohai relationship. I had arranged to meet up with a group of old acquaintances from another aikido organization for drinks—people I hadn’t seen in several years. We hadn’t trained together at Hombu yet—I was meeting them after practice that day. When I got to the bar, one of them, a woman I had met only once before, didn’t shake my hand or give me an American-style hug like everyone else had, but instead stood in front of me and bowed and said, “Good to see you, sempai.” For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I found this intensely irritating and avoided her for the rest of the evening.

I later felt sorry for being so rude, and spent some time trying to figure out what had bothered me so much about this interaction. Part of it was the unnatural formality of her greeting; I felt like snapping at her, “I’m not Japanese, for god’s sake!” It generally strikes me as false when Westerners adopt Japanese manners with each other, especially outside of a dojo context. But after more thought, I realized that my reaction stemmed from the implications of her using the term “sempai” to address me. She and I are not in the same organization, much less the same dojo; we had not trained together. But she addressed me as “sempai,” which to me implies a close relationship with the other person and contains a heavy burden of mutual obligation.

The best way I can describe a sempai’s role in English is the idea of “taking someone under your wing”; there is an implied reciprocal responsibility between sempai and kohai. Personally speaking, there are few people I would consider my sempai in this sense. Robert Savoca is one of them—if I were speaking to him in front of a group of senior Japanese teachers, or talking about him to one of them, I might refer to him as “Savoca sempai.” He has gone out of his way to support my training and my development as an aikidoist, and he has always been willing to offer counsel about technical matters or some problem or roadblock in my training. Reciprocally, to the best of my ability I try to take care of him if there is anything that I can do that his own students cannot. There is a deep friendship between us as well, of course, so our actions toward each other are not mere rote based on rank; they have developed naturally over time. That said, under normal circumstances I use his given name; I don’t address him as “Savoca sempai.” If I called him that, it would put a kind of barrier of formality between us. When I talk about him with his own students, I generally refer to him as “Savoca sensei.”

The Japanese terms “sempai,” “kohai,” and “dohai” may be misunderstood in Western dojos, if they are used at all; likewise, cultural concepts of seniority can be misinterpreted. Literally speaking, “sempai” means “earlier/previous member [of a group]”; “kohai” means “later member”; and “dohai”—used far less often—means “equal member,” and refers to someone who joined the dojo at the same time as oneself. Based on my experiences in Japan, I would say it’s not terribly common outside the university milieu to address a person as “sempai” directly. But both in and out of martial-arts situations, sempai/kohai/dohai are generally used to describe one’s relationship with another person to a third party, e.g. “Charlie is my sempai; he was third kyu when I joined the dojo.” Or “Alice is my kohai; she started working at this company three years after I did.” “James and I are dohai; we entered university at the same time.” In a martial-arts context, the use of these terms depends heavily on circumstances and the culture of the dojo itself. But it’s important to understand that they relate to relationships within a given group, and that certain expectations and obligations are attached to them.

When I first came to Hombu in 2004, I was yondan in rank, and was a certified shidoin within Birankai. When I began practicing at the dojo, however, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was junior (kohai, if you like) to everyone in the dojo who had joined before me, regardless of their rank. It didn’t take much time for me to understand why this made sense. I didn’t know the routines at the dojo—how the cleaning was done, how one lined up for class, how this instructor or that expected people to do shomenuchi ikkyo—so it made sense that I was supposed look to more experienced people to help me learn these things. If there was no one around but a fifth-kyu white belt, I would ask that person for guidance.

In my seven years at Hombu dojo, no one ever called me “sempai,” and I never addressed anyone else that way, either. The term is used a lot in the context of university sports clubs, where there is a keen awareness of seniority; perhaps this is where some Westerners picked it up. Students in clubs are expected to address their seniors as “sempai” and look to them for guidance and direction. This is to some extent a way of training them for the Japanese corporate world, which is far more hierarchical than the Western business milieu. It is also a way to keep the dynamics of a university club, whose members naturally turn over at a rapid rate, at a consistent level. Outside the university context, however, the use of “sempai” and “kohai” are far more varied. Some dojos may encourage their students to address seniors as “sempai”; others will not. (One never addresses a junior as “kohai”; to point so directly to their inferior status would be rude.)

To describe the sempai–kohai relationship in more general terms, I would say that a sempai—that is, a senior dojo member—is expected to show leadership, demonstrate proper form and correct etiquette, and help newer members understand how things go around the dojo, from what the expected stance is for striking shomen to how to clean the toilets. Some people assume that when they reach “sempai” status, they no longer need to do mundane tasks like dusting, or even folding their own hakama. This is not what I experienced in Japan. Regardless of rank, everyone was expected to shoulder their responsibilities; if someone was not cleaning, it was assumed that they had other duties to attend to, not that they were exempt from it. And everyone at Hombu folds their own hakama. Kohai, for their part, generally sought out sempai for practice, watched them for clues about how to behave, and tried to be the first to take care of “easy” dojo responsibilities like cleaning the mat and other shared areas.

In America, I have seen some things that I consider odd or even harmful regarding seniority in a dojo in general, often under the rubric of “sempai/kohai.” The anecdote at the beginning of this essay shows how these terms, if applied thoughtlessly, can create barriers. Or a dan-ranked student may join a new dojo and expect to be given teaching responsibility simply because their rank is higher than other members’. Or an instructor hands over teaching responsibility without taking the time to confirm that the dan-ranked new member executes techniques in a way that is consistent with the practice at that dojo. The entire dynamic of a dojo can be affected by these kinds of decisions. Naturally, it is always up to a chief instructor to assign teaching responsibility, and her decision must be unequivocally respected. In general, though, my feeling is that the person who has been training at the dojo longest should be deferred to by everyone. If you are a guest in a dojo, it is likewise a good idea to take ukemi first when you are training, so you can feel how a technique is done in that dojo.

Obviously, this is not a black-and-white matter, and the idea of “senior” vs. “junior” is heavily context-dependent. A student who joined in 2002 and has trained once a week since then will naturally have a poorer understanding of their teacher’s aikido than one who joined in 2003 but practices five days a week. In such cases, seniority in rank becomes an appropriate yardstick. And at regional seminars and other events where all participants are more or less equal in “membership,” rank would be a much more relevant determinant of the senior/junior role. Complicating matters further is the fact that rank is sometimes conferred for reasons other than technical ability.

In the final analysis, it seems to me that the best policy to adopt is one of flexibility, based on the understanding that your role as senior (or junior) is always relative, and will shift according to context. Regardless of rank, you should take care to fulfill your responsibilities as they present themselves, and treat everyone in the dojo—not only your instructor and seniors, but also your juniors and yourself—with sincere respect.