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Sempai and Kohai - The Ultimate Transmission
Sempai and Kohai - The Ultimate Transmission
by Niall Matthews
Sempai and Kohai - The Ultimate Transmission

Cogs by Daniel Holton
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I'm not a teacher: only a fellow-traveller of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead - ahead of myself as well as you.
George Bernard Shaw, Getting Married

The world can doubtless never be well known by theory: practice is absolutely necessary; but surely it is of great use to a young man, before he sets out for that country, full of mazes, windings, and turnings, to have at least a general map of it, made by some experienced traveller.
Philip Dormer Stanhope, The Letters of the Earl of Chesterfield to His Son

My heart, my fellow traveller
It has been decreed again
That you and I be exiled,
go calling out in every street,
turn to every town.
To search for a clue
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, My Heart My Traveller

I never met him again - the man who was my fellow-traveller for nearly four long months; but I often think of him with a good-humored feeling, and light-hearted laughter. He taught me much that one does not find in the thick volumes of wise philosophers, for the wisdom of life is always deeper and wider than the wisdom of men
Maxim Gorky, My Fellow-Traveller

They think how one life hums, revolves and toils,
One cog in a golden singing hive.
Stephen Spender, The Funeral
sempai: senior
kohai: junior

In the martial arts many concepts fall naturally into pairs of opposites. For example omote/ura. Front/back. Irimi/tenkan. Entering/turning. Kan/kyu. Slow/fast. Go/ju. Hard/soft. I'll talk about these in future columns. Today I want to talk about the senior/junior relationship. Sempai/kohai.

When you start a martial art you fix yourself for ever in that world. There are people who started before you. Your seniors. Sempai. And there are people who started after you and who will start after you. Your juniors. Kohai. So everyone is a senior and a junior at the same time. Always.

The traditional idea of a master or a teacher is of an expert looking backwards and teaching. You can imagine the student and the teacher joined by a cord. In western culture the direction of learning is usually one-way. The teacher passes on accumulated knowledge to the next generations by pulling upwards on the cord. It might be hard and heavy work.

An attractive point about teaching in Japanese culture is that the cord goes in two directions. A sincere teacher gives knowledge but also learns and grows through teaching. I'll come back to the relationship between student and teacher in more depth in another column.

But in the martial arts we add the additional dimension of seniors and juniors. Seniors take responsibility for their juniors and help them on their journeys. Juniors respect their seniors and listen to their advice and try to follow their examples. Everyone works together. You can imagine each element - teacher, student, senior and junior - as one tooth of a cog-wheel inside a huge, intricate and infinite assembly of gears and pinions and racks. The ultimate transmission.

So instead of a one-way or even a two-way relationship knowledge is transmitted efficiently from teacher to student and from student to teacher and from senior to junior and junior to senior in myriad directions. The result is that the whole endless machine is always growing and moving upward. Everyone learns and grows and improves. The ultimate transmission.

Responsibility is taken very seriously. And responsibility is shared. The teacher has the responsibility to teach in the best way possible. The students all have the responsibility to do their best to learn. The seniors have the responsibility to care for their juniors and to guide them. Through doing that they grow in their martial art and also grow as people. The juniors have the responsibility to follow the guidance and to try to live up to the expectations of their seniors.

So sempai and kohai are travelling companions. Fellow-travellers on the journey. Helping each other and learning from each other.

It's a very effective learning model. It might even be the most effective learning model. The ultimate transmission.


Free e-books and online texts

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Complete Project Gutenberg Earl of Chesterfield Works by Chesterfield

George Bernard Shaw, Getting Married

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, My Heart My Traveller

Maxim Gorky, My Fellow-Traveller

On a language point kohai is a simplified romanization. Phonetically it should be written kouhai.

photo: Cogs by Daniel Holton

my blog on aikiweb | my blog on wordpress

niall matthews 2012
Niall Matthews lives with his family in Japan. He teaches aikibudo and community self-defence courses and has taught budo for twenty-five years. He was the senior deshi of Kinjo Asoh Sensei, 7 dan Aikikai. He was the exclusive uke of Sadateru Arikawa Sensei, 9 dan Aikikai, at the hombu dojo in Tokyo for thirteen years until Arikawa Sensei's death in 2003. He has trained in several other martial arts to complement his aikido training, including judo (he has 4 dan from the Kodokan in Tokyo), kenjutsu (for about ten years) and karate (for about three years). He originally went to Japan as a staff member of the EU almost thirty years ago. He received 5 dan from Arikawa Sensei in 1995. This 5 dan is the last aikido dan he will receive in his life. His dojo is called Aikibudo Kokkijuku 合気武道克輝塾. Arikawa Sensei personally gave him the character for ki in kokki. It is the same character as teru in Sadateru - not the normal spelling of kokki 克己. It means you make your life shining and clear yourself.
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Old 10-23-2012, 08:28 PM   #2
Location: Japan
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 155
Re: Sempai and Kohai - The Ultimate Transmission

Hya Niall

Interesting reading and a good view on the standard Japanese system : )

I think it works ok for the Japanese but not so great for the foreigner stumbling into their heirarchy. Respect should be given to all but the system fails if the Sempai is only really a sempai due to age or because they started in one dojo first. The really good thing about the relationship is it can help to continue and maintain one teachers way...but usually only that. Most dojo's in Japan are closed and very few step outside into others so things can become a little boxed and restraining in that way.
I personally had a much better learning experience when I was in the UK...free to travel to up to 6 or more dojo's in a week. Quickly things become apparent beyond what someone can say or show in the traditonal limited manner. That said if you do truly have a teacher of a high level then it's good to stay and absorb and let the politics that can happen wash by : )

All the best

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