BEING THE SEMPAI
by Sensei St. Hilaire
thanks to Brad Johnston for showing me the article
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 that of anyone else
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
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.
It was and IS 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
fulfill 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 - and it means Senior. That
is a blackbelt, a member of the Yudansha - one who is senior to the mudansha
(those below blackbelt). But being THE Sempai is something different. THE Sempai
sits in front of the blackbelt sempai at an angle both to Sensei and the
blackbelts. 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.
This is what it means to be the Sempai.