Sempai

Scot Mertz wrote a very interesting post about the use and misuse of ranks and titles in Japanese martial arts, particularly karate. I tend to agree with most of his comments, which highlight the tendency we have in the West to sometimes draw more meaning into something that was originally intended. As a rule of thumb, titles in particular are overused in the West, in my experience.

During my time in Japan, my former teacher was the head of the dojo, and the hereditary head master of the school of karate in which I trained. His formal title was So Shihan, meaning something like general chief instructor, and he held the title of Hanshi, with the rank of 9th Dan. In the dojo, he was always referred to as “SenseiI”, and it was only the foreigners who called him by the title of Hanshi. Yet in the West, we commonly use Hanshi, Kyoshi, Renshi, etc to address people. While this is not necessarily wrong, its not reflective of the way those titles would be used in Japan.

One area that I disagree with Scot Mertz’s piece is in his discussion about the title “sempai” (sometimes spelt “senpai“). He makes the comment:

In a dojo there is a Sensei, and ONLY ONE Senpai. The Senpai is the MOST SENIOR STUDENT of that Sensei

This is not reflective of my understanding of the term sempai. The term comes from the Sempai-Kohai System, which is ubiquitous throughout all aspects of Japanese society. Sempai basically means “senior”, and kohai means junior, and the terms sempai and kohai describe a relationship between two people. The system is common throughout the Japanese university system, workforce and sporting activities, as well as budo.

As it describes a relationship between 2 people, one person can be a sempai to some people, and a kohai to others. In rare instances, they might be dohai to people who are their equal in age, rank, time of training, etc. These terms are not rank dependent, so even as a relatively senior instructor, I have several sempai, and some kohai.

They are terms, not titles, and in my experience in Japanese, it would be highly unusual to refer to someone as “Sempai John”, and you would NEVER hear the term kohai used as a title.

As sempai-kohai are terms of relationship, the terms bring obligation. As someone’s kohai, it is my responsibility to work hard, take on board their comments and suggestions, and try to anticipate their requirements when training together. As someone’s sempai, it is my obligation to be a role-model and mentor, to guide the person, and to help them correct any mistakes. A kohai is not the lackey or slave of the sempai.

Some organisations, mostly in the West, do tend to arbitrarily use the term sempai as a title for black belts, particularly those that aren’t instructors of roughly shodan and nidan levels (this can of course vary). It would of course be appropriate for mudansha (non-black belt holders) to address junior yudansha (black belt holders) in this way, but it seems in many organisations this has morphed into a formal title for these ranks.

So I can’t really agree with Mr Mertz’s opinion on the term sempai. I do agree with his perspective that the term is overused, and generally misused, and I for one would prefer to see its use minimised, and used to express relationship rather than title.

Oh, one more thing, in Japan it would be unusual for a senior person to address a junior with any title. They would simply use the person’s name with the suffix -san (or sometimes -kun). This doesn’t reflect any negativity. A senior instructor of, for example, 8th Dan level would rarely call someone “John Sensei”, even if John was a 7th Dan! But this would not be an invitation for lower ranks to address John by his name.

I guess the problem is that terms, relationships and titles are well understood in Japanese culture. But in the West, we have perhaps superimposed the Japanese titles and terms with the ranking system found in modern militaries.

One thought on “Sempai

  1. Hi Des, Thanks for getting in contact with me on Twitter. Yay for the internet. I can add that in our karate dojo in Brisbane, Australia the most senior student is referred to as the Jokyo. Our instructor is James Duggan Shihan (Shihan is given at the 5th dan in the Goju Ryu and Goju Kai system) and 3rd dan is referred to as Sensei. As a 1st dan I am a Sempai which I translate as apprentice or someone who is aspiring to be a Sensei but still needs to do some more time learning and developing their teaching skills. We also have Kohai who are the senior students that have completed their Black Gi Grading… That last bit about the Kohai is a non standard formality but works well in our dojo as the Black Gi Grading is a torrid journey and Kohai as a senior rank doesn’t just reflect their rank but their achievements.

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