sempai kohai relationships

by Linnéa Bergman

My question is about sempai-kohai relationships.

Can you explain what makes someone sempai? For being a sempai what do you look at if the grades are equal: time that he started kendo or time that he is a member of this dojo or age? What are the responsibilities of sempai to his kohai and kohai to his sempai?

How should be the hierarchy in a dojo? Should sensei warn sempais and sempais warn kohai? Or should sempais don’t warn for anything at all in the presence of a sensei. I couldn’t explain myself but I think you'll understand what I meant.

What is the difference of respect level against a sempai and a sensei? Should we respect sempais as much as senseis?

Also what happens when a kohai gets to a higher grade than his sempai? Will he give advices to his former sempai and will the respect to each other change completely? This is a little odd.

You are doing a great job with this website. Thank you for that.

Answer: Good question.
First of all, I want you to remember that we all should respect each other no matter what. It does not matter who we are we should not disrespect anyone.

Now I have to mention that what I present here may differ from place to place even in Japan. This can be very complicated so I only talk about the dōjō situation.

So don’t think this is the only one way. Some may disagree.

Sempai is usually those who has more experience in the area you have entered. It does not matter if you are older than them, if these people have been doing kendo longer than you have, they are sempai.

Now what if you’ve gotten higher than your sempai? Your position in the dōjō will be higher than your sempais.  But they will not call you sempai. They are still sempai of yours but you now hold a higher grade.

So you earn the title of sempai and kōhai when you start kendo.
That relationship does not really change because of the grade you hold.

What if you and your sempai hold the same grade?
Usually the older (age) guy should position himself/herself in the higher place.  

For example, my father started kendo at the age of 55. He became my kōhai. But when he became 4-dan, which was the same as I was then, I stepped down to the lower position than his.

The Hierarchy of Dōjō
Sensei is the top. Then sempai and kōhai. However, it does not mean you can bully kōhai or people who hold the lower grade than you.

Role of sensei, sempai and kōhai
Sensei teaches kendo techniques, attitudes and so on. Sempai and kōhai are students of a sensei so of course, they should listen to their sensei.

Sempai is still a student but has been a student at the dōjō longer than their kōhai, hence they are sempai.

Since sempai know more about their dōjō and kendo, they educate kōhai. They should teach the rules of the dōjō, etiquettes and manners of the dōjō to kōhai.

Sempai should teach kōhai as they understand. Many kōhai complains about sempai because sempai is too bossy. Sempai is not a boss of kōhai. Sempai must be a good guidance.

Kōhai should listen to not only sensei but also what sempai teach you. Sometimes kōhai do not really understand why they are told to do certain things. Do it anyway and ask why you had to do it later.

No one knows really why sometimes
Questioning why is good. But we don’t really get an answer for it. Kendo is an old martial art. Well, I should say it carries traditional thoughts, philosophies and movements of Japan, which even the Japanese do not know sometimes.

I want you to know that unless your teacher is a Japanese 7-dan and 8-dan, it is hard for your teacher to know the traditional aspects of kendo.

So my advice is that we all have to humble to learn, especially without an experienced 7-dan or more level sensei.

Hope this helps.

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