BEING THE SEMPAI (or SENPAI)
Sensei St. Hilaire
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 anyone elses 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 of necessity.
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 ettiquette. This was most important. Any breaches in ettiquette in the dojo were repremanded 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 ettiquette 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 neceassary 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.