Senpai / Kohai…it is needed

For many years I have been training martial arts. For about 26 of them I have been teaching now. One of the first lessons I ever learned about respect and discipline in the dojo happened when I shrugged off the advice of another student who was one belt higher than I was. I’ll never forget the Sensei looking me square in the eyes and asking why I didn’t listen to the other student when they were “just trying to help” me. He then proceeded to educate me about a topic that has been very important in the years I have taught that I just couldn’t understand back then…the Senpai and Kohai relationship in the dojo. This also included doing 100 pushups on my knuckles for not respecting my Senpai. That is a lesson you never forget.

Quite simply stated the Senpai is any student who began martial arts training before you did…thus making you the Kohai. In crude terms it is often referred to as Big Brother/Sister and Little Brother/Sister in the martial arts world to simplify its value to training in the dojo. It can also mean Senior (Senpai) and Junior (Kohai). The Senpai / Kohai relationship stems out of Japanese culture and is more about how to treat one’s elders, including time spent in an art form, a job or education. It really hasn’t much to do with the brother/sister type of relationship that can form in the dojo though.  It is important to understand our place in the dojo, even when we surpass others in rank that began before us. Understanding respect is a very hard thing to teach in today’s society due to many factors but often because everyone has a strong desire to be important without actually earning that right…hence entitlement attitude, as we call it in my dojo.

From a student’s very first day they must understand they are not permitted, regardless of their feelings, to disrespect any student who began before them. This establishes a manner in which Karateka will learn to respect their elders and seniors both inside and outside of the dojo. I have witnessed adults not listening to teens who had much more training than they did simply because it was a teenager. I can say, in all honesty, that I have trained some teenagers who could smack the living you know what out of adults who are not listening to them but that is another story entirely. In the dojo everyone is equally treated by their Sensei but they must learn about the Senpai / Kohai relationship vividly  to understand the culture of sharing, learning and growing together. It is paramount to one’s training and the developing of the culture in the dojo which fosters support and growth between all of the students. Without this relationship egos will abound and discipline will wain to the point of uncontrolled training and dojo destruction.

The Senpai is always senior to the Kohai. When you begin training anyone who started, even a month before you did, is your Senpai. Sure it is only one month of training but that means they have already thrown 1000 more strikes, kicks and blocks than you and ran kata 100 times more so they have something of value to offer when sharing in the dojo. It is also important to understand that anyone who has a higher rank than you has already walked the path you are on and thus you should respect what advice they offer you and never take it with a grain of salt or disrespect their desire to share something they see of value to help you in your study of Karate.

Being a Senpai also comes with great responsibility and requires an absence of ego on your part when helping the Kohai in the dojo. When you progress in rank you will find yourself being paired up with students lower rank than you. This is to help you understand your Karate better because you need to help them learn it. This doesn’t mean you are their teacher but merely their senior helping them. A good Senpai will never forget what it was like when they were the Kohai. This will help you to be a good senior to your junior fellow Karateka. You should consider this a very special honor to be able to help your Kohai in the dojo.

Senpai, especially when they reach the green and brown belt level, are often called upon by their Sensei to assist the new students in learning basics such as stances, kihon, kata and other things. This is an important step in your training and gives you much better insight into your own depth of knowledge when it comes to knowing your art. A good Senpai will also set the example for the Kohai students. They will often arrive early, train hard, help out around the dojo and always ask the Sensei if there is anything they need, or the dojo needs. Being a Senpai is an important part of your training just as being a Kohai is. Regardless of your rank and ability you will always be Kohai to someone and that is important to remember. How you treat those that are your Senpai will result in how others will treat you as theirs. Many people forget this as they surpass others in rank in the dojo.

In a good dojo the concept of seniority is highly respected and enforced. This may seem very odd to a new student or the outsider, but it is essential to setting the tone for training and improving our Karate. Your Sensei was right where you are at one point, worked hard, moved up and became the Sensei. They answered to their Senpai, they were a Kohai and in many instances still are to their senior dojo mates who began training before them. A good Sensei will treat their Senpai (regardless of rank) with respect, dignity and admiration, unless they don’t warrant it (see later in this article).

Does the Senpai / Kohai situation ever change? Actually it can and often does. Take this example for your understanding. You began training six months after another person in the dojo did. You both earn Shodan at the same time but they are still Senpai because they started before you. Time goes on and a couple of years go by and you train hard; however your Senpai has taken nine months off for various reasons. You are invited to promote and pass your nidan exam. The one who was your Senpai doesn’t. In this situation it you will become Senpai to the other person because you didn’t take time off of training and were promoted over them. This does NOT mean you begin treating them as your Kohai though…it means you simply out rank them in the scheme of things.

Another way to look at this would be understanding time tables in regards to one’s training. You begin Karate and all those who began before you are your Senpai. Let’s say that student A, B, C and D all began before you. Student A never takes time off of training just like you. They are always your Senpai. Student B began a year before you did, over the course of training they take six months off but you don’t. They are still your Senpai because they have 6 months more training time than you do. Student C began a year before you did. They take a couple of years off. When they return you are their Senpai providing you never took time off of training. Student D is a black belt who takes several years off of training. When they come back to the dojo they still out rank you so therefor they are still your Senpai.

Over the years I have trained Karate I surpassed quite a few people in rank because I never stopped, took time off or slacked off. Even though I made black belt before many of those who began after I did I never treated them as if they were my junior. I always respected them and treated them properly because that is the right thing to do. I often see people who earn rank begin talking down towards others in the dojo when they surpass them. This is very wrong and shouldn’t be tolerated by the Sensei. In reality you should treat everyone, your Kohai and Senpai alike, the way you want to be treated…rank really hasn’t anything to do with until you become a Sensei. The Sensei, providing they are a good, ethical person, should never be disrespected by any student at anytime. You will never understand the role of Sensei until you are in it…when that happens you will remember why your own Sensei may have been hard on you, mean towards you or even ignored you at times. It is all part of the education process in Karate.

When is it ever ok to not listen to your Senpai? That is actually very easy to answer but it will come in several layers. First off if the Senpai is telling you to do something that is direct conflict with what your Sensei has said then you should not do it, but you must also ask for clarification from the Sensei just to make sure. Many times the student thinks they heard the Sensei say to do something a certain way but didn’t truly understand it. When their Senpai is helping them they may not realize that what they are being told is the same as their Sensei told them. Always ask your Sensei if you are not certain for clarification.

Other examples of when not to listen to your Senpai become acceptable is when they are telling you do something immoral, unethical or illegal. Same goes with not listening to your Sensei on those terms as well. A good Senpai and Sensei would never ask their students to do such things and if you find yourself training under ones that do it is time for you to leave and find a better dojo to train at. Let me give you an example of one situation that I actually witnessed first hand. Back in my teen years I was an avid competitor on the tournament circuit. During several events I would listen to students being coached to “take out” their opponent if they “start to lose”. This happened more than I care to actually admit back in those days and I still hear it a small bit today at events. This is wrong, period. I fought some of these guys who knew they didn’t have a chance to beat me so they came out trying to hurt me. Luckily my training was full contact back then so they never succeeded but, irregardless, their Sensei should have never told them to do such a thing to begin with. Had I trained at one of those dojo I would have walked out because, telling your students to intentionally hurt another is wrong and goes against all principles of a good martial art teacher period.

So, if I have been training consistently and someone who began before me quits and comes back am I then their Senpai? Yes, you are, in most cases unless they still out rank you. Let’s face it, people quit for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they just wanted a black belt and then quit. Sometimes life gets in the way with kids, job changes or financial issues. Regardless people do quit martial arts. When they return you, the ones that have never stopped training, are in fact their Senpai but that doesn’t give you any right to treat them like they are beneath you. You should be supportive of their return and be willing to help them catch up, get back in shape and let them know you are happy they are back in the dojo. Too often I see others mistreating those who quit and came back. This is not acceptable attitude from serious students. I, as a Sensei, am always happy when a student returns to classes. I, as a Senpai, am always happy to see someone who once was my senior returning to the dojo to train. I am never looking down on them but rather I am trying to help them catch up. That is what a good Senpai will do.

Being a Senpai to your Kohai is a very important step in your training. Your own Sensei will watch how you treat your juniors in the dojo and that, in turn, assists them in making decisions on who is ready for higher rank and who is not. Everything you do in the dojo is a test…from your Kihon to your Kata, your self defense to your Kumite…even how you treat others you are paired up with. You must remember that, to the Japanese and Okinawans, the study of Karate is Budo, or a warrior way. They don’t see the warrior as some sort of ruffian / viking kill at all costs type. They see a true warrior as someone who is educated, thoughtful, skilled and compassionate. True Karate study goes beyond just being good a kicking someone behind…it also requires proper character development of the individual. The Senpai and Kohai relationships assists in creating just that and helps to build an environment of nurturing and respect in the dojo where everyone is willing to assist each other to achieve the common goal.  The common goal in a good dojo is to grow the dojo, improve our own understanding of our art and help others achieve greatness.

Always remember that being a Senpai, when it happens, is a responsibility never taken lightly. As you progress up in rank your Sensei will demand more from you because they trust you and are preparing you for higher levels of training. When you are asked to help a new student, or lower rank one, do so willingly and with sincere dedication. If your Sensei trusted you to do this then that is something you should never violate. As a Senpai also remember to always ask if you are not 100% certain of something. A good Senpai would never give a student a wrong answer, they would make sure they are right by asking the Sensei. This is part of keeping the integrity of the art and training others solid, proper and correct. In closing remember that just because someone is your Kohai doesn’t mean you are above them. It means you are there to set the example for them so you must lead by your actions because words, in the dojo, mean nothing. Train hard and never stop improving 🙂

Steven Franz, Rokudan
Shorin Ryu Shorinkan

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