Respect in the Dojo

Date 2009/11/9 23:29:08 | Topic: Activities

Respect in the Dojo

This is something that all students are introduced to from the very beginning of their training. Usually on the first lesson, the prospective student is informed of bowing and general etiquette for within the Dojo. Most of what follows is something that should already be known to you, it can also serve as a reference and a standard method of explaining our ceremonies and traditions to new students.


In most cultures around the world, there is usually a custom that goes with greeting and thanking people. In the Karate Academy, we use the custom associated with Japanese culture, the bow.

It is customary to bow when being introduced to someone, excusing your self to someone (e.g. trying to gain their attention) and also thanking someone. In the Karate Academy, you must bow on the following occasions.

• Wanting to ask a question
• Thanking someone for their assistance
• To gain permission to interrupt or interact with someone
• To be allowed permission onto and off of the training mat/area (given by the highest grade)
• Entering and leaving the training area (Dojo)

The Ceremonial Bow is usually conducted to officially begin and end the lesson. It has a long tradition and was used as a means of lining up the troops before a battle, showing respect and servitude towards their master and cause. Our bow is a ‘battle’ bow and should be conducted with an appropriate sense of reverence and respect. If you see someone not giving the appropriate attention to the bow, take it upon yourself to educate them.

What is a Sempai and what is Kohai?
Sempai means upperclassman and kohai means lower class man. In some karate Dojo’s, however, these words take on a shade of meaning that may not be desirable in the place where you may wish to train.
In Japan, the Sempai is someone who is supposed to look after the kohai, to nurture and support the lower class man, and to give them a listening ear and a person to rely on. Sempai is often used as a term of endearment.
The kohai does not serve the Sempai.
In some brutal school club activities this relationship is abused. The most extreme situations are when the freshman students are referred to as mushikera (insects or worms), the sophomores are referred to as dorei (slaves), juniors are elevated to ningen (human beings), and the seniors get to be called kamisama (gods). This kind of arrangement should not be happening in your karate dojo. The best karate schools do not rank students in such a manner and in fact are quite insistent that higher ranked students have a responsibility to their lower ranked classmates.
In the dojo the Sempai usually are seated in the most senior positions during training and are important to the culture of the training environment in their roles as leaders. Sempai students ought to be the best examples for newer and less experienced students; they may be called to assist the instructor in demonstrating the application of technique. Kohai students just get to learn, be observant, and do their best. They are not punching bags and not servants. They are students that need to be shown how to develop in karate.
If your dojo has a master-slave relationship between Sempai and kohai you have it all backwards. The Sempai support the kohai, they help them, and they do whatever they can to encourage them upwards in improving their karate.

In the DOJO

Sempai/Kohai is most often based on who has been training the longest, or rather, who has the most experience. Regardless of physical skills, the person with the most experience is always regarded as Sempai and the person with lesser experience is regarded as Kohai. The Sempai has responsibilities for the development of the Kohai and the Kohai has responsibilities for tending to the needs of the senior members. The Kohai always carries the Sempai's bags, for example, and the Sempai will never try to escape from the responsibility of offering advise and criticism to the Kohai.

The system of Sempai/Kohai is regulated by "Mibun", which is the system of rights and responsibilities. No one can have absolute authority over another without a concomitant share of distinct responsibilities.

"Mibun" carries with it an implicit restriction on the ingenuity and actions of the juniors. The junior is expected to selflessly present ingenious ideas to the senior and the senior is expected to be sure that the junior gets the credit. A junior who creates an innovative training method, for example, humbly presents that method to his senior. If the senior likes the idea and uses it, he will be forthright in telling others that his junior invented it. In the way, the junior gets credit for his idea and the senior gets credit for having such a good and faithful junior. If, on the other hand, a junior invents something new and starts using it, looking for admiration and personal praise, he will be considered "a nail sticking up", and the senior will be obligated to hammer him back down into his proper place.

What does it mean to be a Sempai

The simple meaning is to understand the definition. Sempai translates as "Senior" and can be applied in any situation where someone is senior to you. The Japanese term is used in school, business, the arts, and of course the martial ways. But the meaning for those in a traditionally run martial art group is far deeper than simply "Senior."

The history of Sempai is long. The position has existed in warrior groups since warrior groups began, and is not just a Japanese phenomenon. Originally Sempai was the most senior warrior in the group, under the group's commander or leader. His responsibility has always been awesome and harder than anyone elses in the group. He was responsible for the development and direction of the lower warriors, and for the protection of the leader. No other position in a warrior group had these responsibilities. In the Japanese martial arts, the position remains the same.

The Sempai of a dojo had trained for a long time with the headmaster. He understood the headmasters (Sensei's) goals, training methodologies and philosophies. He also understood Sensei as a warrior and as a person. More than these understandings, he had privileges and knowledge about Sensei that other students did not. Thus this made Sensei vulnerable to Sempai. With that vulnerability came trust by Sensei and responsibility by Sempai. With these privileges and knowledge about Sensei, Sempai had the sole responsibility to protect Sensei with his life. This often meant that Sempai was forced to train harder than both the students and the Sensei, for if a student or enemy saw that Sempai was vulnerable or easily beatable - there was surely an opening to get at Sensei. In times of war, Sempai was either the strongest or the weakest link in the command chain. A Sempai who was not the strongest was quickly replaced out of necessity.

Being Sempai meant you were personally responsible for the training of Kohai (juniors). Upon review by Sensei, all Kohai must measure up to Sensei's standards or Sempai was directly to blame. Sempai was personally responsible for Kohai etiquette. This was most important. Any breaches in etiquette in the dojo were reprimanded by Sempai, not Sensei. If Sensei had to make the correction, it simply meant Sempai was not doing his job. If either of these situations happened more than a few times, Sempai was replaced with someone who could accomplish the duties assigned.

Being Sempai also meant you were the only person in the dojo that Sensei completely recognized for his martial skill. He is the one person who Sensei "feared" in the group. Most often Sempai was the fiercest and smartest person in the warrior group besides Sensei. The difference is that it was Sensei's position to lead in a calm, controlled and sophisticated manner, whereas Sempai maintained control through toughness, fierceness, and a no-nonsense attitude.

Sempai's responsibility

It was and is the Sempai's responsibility to immediately correct any breach in etiquette toward Sensei, stop any threat toward Sensei, correct technical insufficiencies of the Kohai, and dominate in training. Those who could not fulfil these responsibilities were removed.

With all this responsibility, Sempai is still the best "job" in the dojo. You are the dominant warrior. You maintain the relationship between Sensei and students. You get the special training with Sensei. You set and maintain the attitude in the dojo. Traditionally you are the one who commands the students. When you see Sensei ready to start class you tell the students to line up. You tell the students to Bow to Sensei. You smack them on the back of the head when they are fooling around instead of training. You save the new student from abuse by more experienced students. You are solely responsible for resetting the tone of a group of students if it is going in the wrong direction. At the same time - you are the person most looked up to in the dojo. You are recognized as the person nobody wants to mess with. You are the one the students watch when you contest with Sensei - because they know you are the one most likely to catch Sensei when he makes a technical mistake.

There are others in the dojo referred to as Sempai

There are others in the dojo referred to as Sempai - and it means Senior. That is a black belt, a member of the Yudansha - one who is senior to the mudansha (those below black belt). But being THE Sempai is something different. THE Sempai sits in front of the black belt sempai at an angle both to Sensei and the black belts. This position is necessary because the Sempai needs to see both Sensei and Students. His back can be turned to neither if he is to protect Sensei. Being THE Sempai means you train directly with Sensei and Sensei confers with you on strategy, technique, and running the training sessions at the dojo.

The Sempai should make every effort to be at Sensei's dojo as often as possible. (In warrior history it was always - but today's modern society - not at war - often means making it to class as often as practical.) The Sempai should always be concerned that some other student is receiving more training than him, is training harder than him, and is perhaps taking over his position without him knowing it. Sempai constantly looks at students with distrust - being the barrier between the students and Sensei.

The Sempai should not rush toward being a Sensei in his own dojo. Because all of these duties, which a correctly chosen Sempai's personality is natural for, will go away. In order to be Sensei you must re-invent yourself and become something else. When that day comes - a true Sempai will look back on his days as The Sempai as the "glory days", which he will sorely long for the rest of his days.

Sempai means, in general terms

Sempai means, in general terms, a senior student. Someone who has been training longer than others and can show newcomers the ropes. They don't have to be the most senior student in the dojo although the fascination with exotic titles and the like often means that this is how it's used. In a traditional dojo to be sempai the person would be someone who takes a newcomer "under their wing" and helps them along. The newer person is then kohai (junior) in this relationship. In this context the sempai is a particular person rather than anyone who happens to be a senior student. The odd part of this (to some) is that this sempai-kohai relationship is a long term thing, and even if the newer person someday grades past their sempai then that person is still regarded as sempai - the roles don't suddenly reverse because the other person now has a lower rank.
Sensei means teacher

Sensei means teacher (or one who has gone before). Some schools don't use the title unless the instructor is 3rd dan or higher. It's also used to address doctors, lawyers etc. Some schools enforce the use regardless of the instructor's level, handing out punishment to anyone who doesn't address the instructor as "sensei". Some schools don't use it at all, and it's not uncommon to find that students use it out of respect because the instructor merits it in their own eyes, even if it's only used in the 3rd person i.e. "He's my sensei" while still calling the instructor by name in regular training without there being any sense of disrespect in doing so.

Shihan means "master instructor”

Shihan is used by some. It means "master instructor". The level that it starts being used can vary from one school to the next and is most often used in terms of the person being a teacher of teachers.

Renshi, Kyoshi and Hanshi are all teaching titles

Renshi, Kyoshi and Hanshi are all teaching titles.

• Renshi may be awarded from 6th Dan
• Kyoshi from 7th Dan
• Hanshi from 8th Dan upwards.

Other titles given

• Soke (Founder)
• Sosai (President)
• Kancho (Director)

all terms used to indicate the head of a school

This article comes from KAJ Goju Ryu Seiwakai Australia

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