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There is another thread about a person having questions about experiencing the Kohai/Sempai (K/S) thing at a dojo. Thus far many of the replies vary in degree of what it is and how it practiced. None of which I read are from those in Japan who are experiencing it.
I suggested as an offer of help to the situation in terms of understanding the K/S thing is to look at Sumo. Why, well Sumo is said to be the model for today's martial arts in terms of cultural practice.
I went hunting, because I not in Japan and I wanted to know some things and on my journey I ended with...you guessed it Sumo to explain the K/S model- as a benchmark, or what have you.
What I found along the way I will post in quotes below. But during my journey, I found these two Japanese words; Mibun and Kakushiki that kept being associated to the Tokagawa period. Many scholars site this period to be very important in terms of change and formation of laws and social structures in Japan. It sees during this time social hierarchy was really stressed, and so was laws (includes the system and social protocol-from what I gathered.
It seems from my experience and of that I read from others and there dojo's the K/S outside Japan vary greatly in knowledge, practice, and importance. It would be interesting to me to know if that is the case in Japan?
This is what I found:
Overall K/S is thing about respect and responsibility, a mentor program, an apprentice program. A sports team where the pros are the Sempai's and the rookies are Kohai's. Another description was as upperclassmen and lowerclassmen/freshmen. It's that sort of thing Japanese style. The common thread is again respect and responsibilities.
The junior rikishi must get up earliest, around 5 a.m., for training whereas the sekitori may start around 7 a.m. When the sekitori are training the junior rikishi may have chores to do, such as assisting in cooking the lunch, cleaning and preparing the bath, or holding a sekitori's towel for him for when he needs it. The ranking hierarchy is preserved for the order of precedence in bathing after training, and in eating lunch.
In the afternoon the junior rikishi will again usually have cleaning or other chores to do, while their sekitori counterparts may relax, or deal with work related issues related to their fan club. In the evening sekitori may go out with their sponsors while juniors stay at home in the stable, unless they are to accompany the stablemaster or a sekitori as his manservant when he is out (this is normally a more privileged role given to a riikishi who may be nearing sekitori status himself).
Sekitori also are given their own room in the stable or, if married, may live in their own apartment. The junior rikishi sleep in communal dormitories.
Thus the world of the sumo wrestler splits broadly into the junior rikishi who serve and the sekitori who are served upon. The life is especially harsh for new recruits, to whom the worst jobs tend to be allocated, and there is a high dropout rate at this stage. http://www.jref.com/glossary/sumo.shtml
I see that at the core of it, K/S thing is similar in ways to the "Godfather Movies" or "The Sapranos" - a scene where Tony tells, an upset Christopher about how the system works, how Christopher will someday have his own Page doing things for him.
Also how the K/S has commonalities with things like some sports (pros and rookies), business, trades and crafts, and government. Because the K/S system is something Japanese and unique to Japan in it's entirety that it is something not very well understood out side of Japan in most dojos.
As I come to the end of my journey I think about, should the K/S thing be understood and implemented, and practiced completely traditionally, or shouldn't it? K/S is something very much a part of Budo, and thus, Aikido. If it is practiced say when O'Sensei was in his youth is it a lesson of character building? So with that thought, is it that important to get it right? I don't know. I see both sides.
The K/S system is archaic; there are other ways to build respect, responsibility, and character. Though not ever dojo feels the responsibility to teach such lessons in this way. K/S let's people know where they are at. It works as an organization tool. But, it does allow for a pecking order to take place. While some embrace the K/S seeing it's advantages and values, such as reinforcing rank and the privilages of rank, not every Aikidoka wants to go through such a think. Not very dojo, I am sure, practices the tradition the same why or with the same importance. The K/S system can keep order by pound the nails down that are sticking up. Yet, it is evident that a dojo will not fall apart if K/S thing isn't observed. The acceptance of the K/S is ultimately up the individual Sensei, and the students to partake in it.
My journey has lead me to a clear and definite model of the K/S model. From that I can decide the importance of K/S relationship and the degree I want to participate in it. I have been in a few dojos and observed a variety of ways they practice K/S system. I am still cautious of how it plays in my Aikido. Including how it is practiced within the philosophy of O'Sensei, and how closely it follows the model of Sumo. All of which is based on the idea of responsibility and respect.