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Old 10-29-2009, 01:36 PM   #1
"Lost and confused"
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Dead Sempai-Kohai relationship

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.
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Old 10-29-2009, 02:14 PM   #2
Voitokas
 
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

What does one say? I think that your sensei's ideas about sempai/kohai are not the norm. Frankly, your sensei sounds like kind of an ass, but if you like that sensei and that dojo, I guess the easiest thing is to just assume that everyone is your sempai... Normally (as far as I understand), it's time, then rank and age, and skill has nothing to do with it. But, obviously, it would be inappropriate to give your sensei a lecture on the matter... Good Luck!

I am not an expert
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Old 10-29-2009, 02:35 PM   #3
Ron Tisdale
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

These kind of discussions just...don't do it for me anymore. Nothing against you, your sensei, his school, what ever...I guess I'm just jaded.

At the bottom of this page you will see links to several similar threads. I think they'll make for interesting if not good reading, and you'll definitely see a variety of opinions. This kind of question came up fairly recently, and if you search on sempai and or kohai you should find that thread as well.

Personally, I tend to stay away from these terms...too much cultural baggage for me. But you simply don't always have that luxury. And others (some much more educated in the art and the culture than I am) will tell you it is necessary.

Best,
Ron

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Old 10-29-2009, 04:14 PM   #4
"Lost & Confused"
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

I had read a few of those threads and they just don't quite answer my questions. Like I said, I have no problem being kohai. I just would like to know the minor details so I don't mess up again. Maybe from now on to be on the safe side, I should just treat everyone like sempai, even if they did start the exact same day as me....
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Old 10-29-2009, 04:24 PM   #5
Josh Reyer
 
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

Quote:
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?
Sempai-kohai is a relationship of seniority. As such, it never changes. Someone who starts the day before you is (technically) always your sempai, no matter how you change in rank and/or actual skill level. One can be a sempai in one thing (having started earlier than the other person) and kohai in another (having started later than the other person in that thing), but in the case of a single dojo teaching both aikido and iaido, sempai would be determined by who joined the dojo first.

All that said, it sounds like your sensei doesn't have a particularly nuanced understanding of the concept. In Japan, in an adult dojo, sempai-kohai relationships aren't particularly salient, compared to rank or actual ability.

Josh Reyer

The lyf so short, the crafte so longe to lerne,
Th'assay so harde, so sharpe the conquerynge...
- Chaucer
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Old 10-29-2009, 04:55 PM   #6
"Lost & Confused"
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

Thanks for the help. That makes it a bit more simplistic for me. My sensei studied with Chiba Sensei, Sato Sensei and at Hombu at different points along his training. So, maybe it is my interpretation of what he is saying that is also adding to my own confusion.... I truly appreciate your help!
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Old 10-30-2009, 04:59 PM   #7
Buck
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

I say FWIW, look at the old Sumo traditions for the model of Sempai, Kohai thing and what it is all about.

But ummm...it seems different people put different twists on it. I have say, I was told the same thing as Josh wrote. I think this is a complicated situation, but what I was told and practiced is each class is different and thus follows what Josh said about who starts first. In one class your Kohai, but in the other your Sempai, and it stays that way.

It is I think the S/K relationship and model is a very difficult thingy in martial arts. The is similarities to a page and a knight (if that helps) and yet it is something different in societies outside Japan. Because the way the Japanese do it, they have their own rules and protocol and stuff which isn't widely known. There is, I am told, variations even in that depending on the art. S/K relationship is complicated practiced as intended.

I am saying I'd go with Josh on this one if that helps.
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Old 10-31-2009, 08:53 AM   #8
zenman67
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

I have Studied Aikido now for 24 years and our School is traditional.
I have allways considered that rank shows knowledge and should be respected. As far as to when someone started i have studied with some Black belts that show no respect for the Harmony or knoweledge that someone has. Just remember the reason why O-Sensie taught Aikido; was to bring peace and Harmony to ones-self as well as with others.

Peace & Harmony
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Old 10-31-2009, 09:06 AM   #9
David Maidment
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

With absolutely no disrespect to your sensei or others who share the same view, I'm not sure I agree with that stance on the issue. It just doesn't seem practical.

No one in our dojo ever uses the words 'sempai' or 'kohai', but the roles do exist. We seem to treat it more as a combination of experience and [perhaps more importantly] sincerity.

There are some people who helped me when I started who fulfilled the role of sempai, and now my ability has meant that I've effectively become their sempai.

But, like I said, it's not at all stressed or implied in our dojo, but if you sit down and look at it there is sometimes a sempai/kohai thing going on.

Moreover, I agree with Ron -- the terms are too loaded. It'd be far easier to just train

"Never escalate a battle unless forced to do so by your enemy" - Zordon
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Old 10-31-2009, 12:08 PM   #10
heathererandolph
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

I think it is sort of a moot point whether a 6th Kyu person is sr. to another 6th Kyu person because you both know very little in the scheme of things. Are you not allowed to train with other people or it is your preference to work with these people? I think it advisable to train with people who outrank you if possible. Generally, the highest ranking person should be your goal. Hours of training is important but also the quality of your learning experience. That will also avoid the question of who is sr. to whom.
What I'm used to is the person who outranks you is sr. and therefore you always attack them first. That may vary in your dojo to hours of training being first but whatever is used to determine senority. The jr. person may know more about the particular technique, etc... but the jr. person always attacks first and gives instruction if asked. The Sensei is expected to come around to the various pairs and to give advice as needed.
If you can focus on your own training, that is best because it is so easy to get caught up in trying to teach one's partner and who knows more about what rather than learning for oneself.
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Old 10-31-2009, 06:13 PM   #11
"Lost & Confused"
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

Quote:
Heather Randolph wrote: View Post
I think it is sort of a moot point whether a 6th Kyu person is sr. to another 6th Kyu person because you both know very little in the scheme of things. Are you not allowed to train with other people or it is your preference to work with these people?
We are allowed to train with other people and I often train with yudansha or 1st kyu students. When that happens, of course I attack first. Sometimes though, I work with other 6th kyu's like me. I usually attack them first as well, just because.....

This came up because I accidently assumed a spot next to sensei when my and my husband were working together. Like I said before, we both started on the same day.... but evidently sensei has determined that he is my sempai. I would just like to know how this determination is made so I don't mess up when working with other students of my rank.

I have no problem being the low person on the totem pole. That doesn't bother me a bit. Messing up when it comes to etiquette on the other hand.... that I don't like.
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Old 10-31-2009, 07:53 PM   #12
Josh Reyer
 
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

Quote:
Anonymous User wrote: View Post
This came up because I accidently assumed a spot next to sensei when my and my husband were working together. Like I said before, we both started on the same day.... but evidently sensei has determined that he is my sempai. I would just like to know how this determination is made so I don't mess up when working with other students of my rank.
The determination seems arbitrary and weird. If you started on the same day, your husband simply isn't your sempai.

Josh Reyer

The lyf so short, the crafte so longe to lerne,
Th'assay so harde, so sharpe the conquerynge...
- Chaucer
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Old 10-31-2009, 08:21 PM   #13
Linda Eskin
 
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

It does seem really weird. Unless there was some little detail involved like your husband walked in the door first when you originally signed up. The way I understand it, sempai are people who started at your dojo before you did. Rank and skill have nothing to do with it. There's a word for someone who started the same day (neither sempai nor kohai), but I can't think of what it is. I had one of those - guy who started the same night I did, but he quit after a short while.

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Old 10-31-2009, 09:30 PM   #14
Carl Thompson
 
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

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Linda Eskin wrote: View Post
There's a word for someone who started the same day (neither sempai nor kohai), but I can't think of what it is.
Dohai, but as it seems in this instance that sempai and kohai are not well understood, I hesitate to volunteer another term.
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Old 10-31-2009, 09:37 PM   #15
Peter Goldsbury
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

I have become increasingly wary of making contributions to threads like this, for kohai / sempai seem to have a different usage in the US from what they have in Japan. I have been living here for a long time and I have direct experience of how the terms are used in Japan, especially in a large university, a Japanese company, or an organization like the Aikikai. The usage is nuanced, but quite specific and clear. Two persons who entered an organization at the same time are dohai or dokyusei. Judged purely on these grounds, neither can be sempai / kohai to each other. If the distinction is to be made, it must be made on other grounds, which do not relate to how the terms are used here.

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Old 10-31-2009, 09:45 PM   #16
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

Thank you Peter. That (dohai) was the word I was thinking of. I thought it was pretty cool that I had one. Kinda bummed that he quit.

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Old 10-31-2009, 10:21 PM   #17
"Lost & Confused"
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

Thanks for the help everyone. Maybe he is basing it on my husband's previous (though long ago) aikido experience. Who knows. I will just tread carefully and since I have two dohai, I will just make sure they attack first to prevent any other confusion on my part.
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Old 11-01-2009, 01:22 AM   #18
Darryl Cowens
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

Hmmm... funny, in my club we usually just line up where we feel like it. I have noticed usually a yudansha lines up on the far right, but I can't recall if that is always the case.

I have never even heard the terms sempai or kohai used in the dojo, let alone anyone addressed as such. In fact I can probably only count a handful of times I have ever heard our Sensei addressed as 'Sensei'... and even then, that was by a yudansha, possibly in an effort to encourage dojo protocol.

I can understand why all these protocols and traditions are in place, but (as one who is very new to MA) isn't there a risk of getting caught up in it too much? By all means line up according to dan and kyu grade, but when people are quarrelling over who sits where out of 10 6th kyus that might be present one night, you gotta wonder how they get any training done?

My very novice and uneducted 1.5c worth...
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Old 11-01-2009, 09:29 AM   #19
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

Yeah, lining up and who attacks whom are the least important things, since they're the trappings rather than the substance of the relationship - and they seem to have to do more with rank (especially if they are actually spoken of or enforced) than with any kind of sempai-kohai relationship.

I am no expert on any culture; however, it seems like, in mistaking some of the traditional behaviours that arise from a sempai-kohai relationship, people mistake the reflection for the root.. That is to say, people think "it's the rule for kohai to be uke first and that is one way of defining the relationship", where really a student with kohai-feeling would be looking to their sempai for instruction in a technique and a student with sempai-feeling would be making sure that their kohai was up-to-speed by interpreting sensei's technique for them. None of it would be a rule, or be spoken - but kohai would generally attack first (and if kohai thought he understood better, he would still attack first to avoid presumption) every time. To look at that and say "this is a rule that you follow to be kohai" seems like missing the whole point.

I am not an expert
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Old 11-01-2009, 04:00 PM   #20
"Lost & Confused"
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

Just to clear something up, we do not line up at the beginning or end of class according to rank. We just sit wherever we want. It is only when we are partnering that sensei wants the lower ranked person to attack first.
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Old 11-01-2009, 06:45 PM   #21
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

We have a relatively informal sempai/kohai relationship but it certainly does exist even without the use of names. As the senior student at our dojo, I usually tell my junior students that they will eventually gain an understanding of where they stand and who should attack first.

That said, the lines are not always clear-cut.

I took a class last week that included a student who started several years before me, but due to a stop-start approach to his training and long absences in between training I am yudansha and he is still a mid-level kyu grade.

I certainly consider myself to be senior in terms of ability and understanding (I've also trained for nearly 25 years in other martial arts apart from Aikido whereas this student has only studied Aikido), but am not so hung up on the concept to try and force this student to conform to a notion of sempai/kohai.

When we train at our national schools or special days of training there are certain people that I have no problems whatsoever in deferring to as their understanding eclipses my own, but those same people are probably the last ones to try and enforce the sempai/kohai relationship.

Personally I wouldn't get too worried about the notional relationship and simply concentrate on the training. It is true that you can learn from anyone and everyone and that the idea of someone being senior to you simply means they are in a different part of the same path - it hardly matters whether they are in front, beside or behind you, you are all pushing toward the same end.
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Old 11-02-2009, 12:25 PM   #22
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

Quote:
Sean Kelleher wrote: View Post
It is true that you can learn from anyone and everyone and that the idea of someone being senior to you simply means they are in a different part of the same path - it hardly matters whether they are in front, beside or behind you, you are all pushing toward the same end.
I like that.
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Old 11-02-2009, 06:57 PM   #23
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

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Anonymous User wrote: View Post
I like that.
I like it too, until I meet people that have nothing to learn from me. These are usually people that no one else likes, but they are put up with, like my previous boss (who I left as blissfully ignorant as I found him).

michael

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Old 11-02-2009, 10:16 PM   #24
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

I was reading one of my books today by Dave Lowry and he had a short essay about it. He said it is pretty cut and dry about those starting before being sempai and those after being kohai regardless of time, experience and rank. HOWEVER, he did mention that there are minute details that can change things (though he didn't go into detail about what those are)

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Old 11-03-2009, 07:59 AM   #25
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Re: Sempai-Kohai relationship

Quote:
Ashley Carter wrote: View Post
I was reading one of my books today by Dave Lowry and he had a short essay about it. He said it is pretty cut and dry about those starting before being sempai and those after being kohai regardless of time, experience and rank. HOWEVER, he did mention that there are minute details that can change things (though he didn't go into detail about what those are)
Nothing can change sempai-kohai. However, saying Person A is sempai and Person B is kohai doesn't say much at all beyond who started earlier. The relationship between sempai and kohai can be as varied as relationships between any two people. It all depends on the time, place, and occasion.

Josh Reyer

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