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Here is an article written by Chris Howey (aikido Instructor in the USA) on the Sempai - Kohai relationship. Although it speaks about aikido, it equally applies to all martial arts.

The Japanese determined a long time ago that a system based on experience, duty, honor and trust were the best ways to ensure that people could struggle with life threatening disciplines. The entire concept of budo is built on the Sempai-Kohai (seniors/juniors) relationship.

I would like for you to understand what that relationship entails.

First - sempai are not "monarchs" - they are not born to "rule". Sempai are seniors, their responsibilities include the guiding and mentoring of those junior to them. They earn their positions - they do not acquire them as an accident of birth, an act of dominance or a democratic election.

Sempai are the people that have invested considerable time, effort and expense to acquire a set of traditions, techniques and understandings that they share with people who do not have the same experience - kohai.

In our system there is always at least one person to whom everyone else is junior. The rules that bind the sempai are that they must constantly examine and evaluate all of the factors that they can that effect the practice of their art. They are to act in a way that they feel will be in the best interest of the kohai. Sempai are, among other things, honor bound to do their best to insure the creation of an environment that is conducive to the acquisition of all of the lessons that a study of the art entails.

The job of the kohai is to trust that good intent and to follow the lead of the sempai - cognizant of the fact that the sempai, being human, may (will!) be in error in some ways at some times - but that overall the direction will be a sound one.

What I'm describing is a difficult role for both parties. Sempai can never "win" because there is always someone who believes they know better, can perform faster, has greater insight, or whatever. The system says none of that is the point, however. The system says that it doesn't matter if the sempai is ALWAYS right, or ALWAYS fastest or ALWAYS the most knowledgeable. The system is built on the trust that the sempai 's actions will be responsible - not that they will be perfect. Because sempai have committed themselves to the overall good of the art and the welfare of the student body - and they have paid the "dues" needed to assume that level of responsibility - they are entrusted with the direction of other students. If a sempai was blind, had one leg and dribbled mucous from their ears - they would still deserve that you followed their lead.

It is also difficult to be Kohai. In western culture there is a strong sense of individuality and the need to be personally noticed. Aikido, though, teaches us to trust ourselves to the good intent of others. In Aikido we are trying to reduce our sense that we must have things "our way". We do this not to become submissive but so that our mind will become unfettered by preconception - so that we can blend with the attack of a person that truly wishes us harm and stop the attack. Minds that are locked into having things "their way" may be overwhelmed by an attack that doesn't meet their expectations.

Sometimes differences of opinion can exist between students in a dojo. The arbiter for differences is the most senior sempai. We are human, however, and the Sempai/kohai system is a demanding one. Many of us find it hard to feel truly comfortable trusting another person's good intentions. There is a tendency at times for kohai to feel that they must challenge a sempai. While this is understandable, it is not our way. Challenges are essentially aggressive acts. They are assaults. They aren't collaborative. Questions, however, are collaborative. Asking is always a good way to both present a point of view and to receive explanations.

Strong kohai do not challenge. Aikido is not about challenging. Challenging a senior should not be a source of pride. It does not create a better and more open atmosphere. It does not show the correct understanding of dealing with conflicts. Such behavior sows seeds of doubt in the spirits of people who are already having their foundations rocked (because that is exactly what we are doing to people in Aikido) and who, often, are desperately trying to find a way to avoid that inner confrontation.

If you have a question about something a sempai does - ASK them. Do NOT come to a sempai with comments such as "I don't think it was appropriate for you to do that" or "You're wrong! That's not the way to do that!" That's not your job - or a very effective way to communicate - to anyone! Sempai should be interested in questions you have; everyone benefits from questions.

Being a sempai isn't always a funfilled job. You have to assume responsibilities so that other people can trod a path that they often don't see - and are frequently afraid to keep walking on. Our path does scare people and causes them pain - but it is a path that we know will benefit those that develop the courage to persevere. Our path may save someone's life.

A sempai has to put other people's pursuit of the path before their own comfort and especially before their own need to be important. Being a sempai is being in service to needs that people don't even know yet that they have - it is not about having kohai meeting your needs. It is about having gone before - not about being popular or pleasing to others. It demands that a person make hard choices that others will not always agree with - because those others haven't yet walked the sempai's walk. And being a sempai is about always trying to do your best - even when others don't understand.

On a personal note, Kushida Sensei taught me years ago that being a sempai - especially being a sensei - was a lonely place to be. Remember all this - because someday, if you become a sensei, it will be your job to teach these very difficult lessons to others. But also remember, before you can teach something as difficult as this - you have to live it.

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