My husband and I started aikido on the same day. It just so happened that another guy "Tom" started the same day as us. My husband and I both know that everyone who started before us is our sempai. When it comes to work with my husband or Tom, I always grab them first. I don't have a particular reason as to why I grab them first, but I feel more comfortable doing this. My husband has a lot more martial arts experience then I do (though we both have trained for quite some time- and this is partly why I grab him first). Since my husband works nights, I have been attending class more often then him and have over 30 hours more then him. Tom hasn't been in class too much and probably has less then 30 hours then my husband. Now, despite the hours of training, I still grab my husband and Tom first.
My husband and I started doing iaido several months ago. I have always allowed my husband to sit to my right when we line up at the beginning and end of class. Several months after we started, Tom started. Sensei had him line up to my left. Again, because I am able to train more, I have more hours then my husband. Because of this, he isn't too familiar with the forms. Last night during iaido we were doing paired kata for a change. Sensei told me at one point to partner up with my hubby. Since I was closer to the wall/ open spot then my husband, I ran to the other side of the dojo to get there so we weren't holding up sensei and the other yudansha. Little did I know I had just committed an error in judgment. Sensei corrected me and told me to let my husband have that spot and for me to go back where I was. He explained that though my ukemi was better, he had a better understanding of weapons and he was my sempai. He told me that I had to realize that there are differences and to realize where I stand.
Needless to say, I felt quite small at that point due to my ignorance. I had never thought I was higher then my husband and I seriously didn't mean to do anything that suggested I was. Despite the fact that I have more hours, I have always thought that he was senior to me in aikido and I just assumed that we were equals (though I let him sit to my right and do the technique first) when it came to iaido. Due to what sensei said, obviously, I am not his sempai, which is okay since I was treating him as my sempai anyway.
At the end of class I asked sensei if I could ask him a question about etiquette. I asked if the sempai was supposed to be on the same side of the dojo as sensei. He responded, not always. Sometimes it doesn't matter what side the sempai is on, but sometimes it does matter. He told me that my husband was clearly my sempai in both aikido and iaido. I walked out of the dojo feeling overly confused and haven't been able to stop thinking about it.
My question is, what determines a sempai versus kohai. Is it time? If so then that means everyone before you will always be your sempai, even if you go up and pass them in rank. Is it rank? If so, then if someone passes you in rank, they become your sempai and you revert back to kohai. Is it ability? If so, then those lower then you who happen to be more gifted in something would be your sempai in some circumstances. Does previous experience come into play at all (whether it is aikido or another style)? Does age get put in the equation? If so, then my husband would always be sempai because he is significantly older then I am.
Can someone be your sempai in one thing and your kohai in another? For instance, I take iaido and am more familiar with the sword. In aikido we also do a lot of work with the bokken. I sometimes work with a 5th kyu (I'm a 6th) kyu, who is my sempai. However, he isn't too familiar with the bokken because he doesn't attend the weapons class that often and he doesn't take iaido. Does that mean because I am more experienced with the bokken that I am sempai for that moment? Apparently, sensei does not treat them as separate classes and the sempai/ kohai relationship can spill over into the other class. Does that mean if someone who is my sempai in aikido comes into iaido that I must move down the line and treat them as my sempai in iaido as well?
As you can see, I have a lot of questions and I don't think they will all be answered. I also think that each dojo will have different views on this. Some places may be more cut and dry about this relationship, while other places may be a bit more complicated. The bottom line is I don't really care who is sempai and who is kohai. If sensei says my husband is sempai, he is sempai. All I care about is doing what is asked of me. I don't want to step on anyone's toes and I don't want to offend anyone. I have a better understanding for those who are clearly higher or lower then me. It is people of the same rank and the fine line between different areas that confuses me.