Thank you to Sensei Hoffman for providing the subject and content for this blog post.

 I’d (Sensei Hoffman) like to convey some thoughts about the concept of Senpai and Kohai and its importance in Japanese society. It’s crucial that, as a student of Japanese karate, you understand the senpai/kohai system and all it entails. We should not study just punching, kicking, and blocking.  Since we are learning a martial arts, that should encompass the cultural aspects, and history of the system as well.
Senpai (先輩?) and kōhai (後輩?) are terms applied to the mentor system in wide use in Japanese culture, which is often found at all levels of education, in sports clubs, businesses, and informal or social organizations. The relationship is an essential element of Japanese seniority-based status relationships, similar to the way that family and other relationships are decided based on age, in which even twins may be divided into elder and younger siblings. The senpai is roughly equivalent to the Western concept of a mentor, while kōhai is roughly equivalent to protégé, though they do not imply as strong a relationship as these words mean in the West. More simply, these may be translated as senior and junior.

More than simple seniority, senpai implies a relationship with reciprocal obligations, somewhat similar to a mentoring relationship. A kōhai is expected to respect and obey their senpai, and the senpai in turn must guide, protect, and teach their kōhai as best they can. Senpai/kōhai relationships generally last for as long as the two people concerned stay in contact, even if the original context in which the senpai was senior is no longer relevant.

 So as to role changes; I now have several people in our organization that started after me but now outrank me. I was once explained by my senpai that rank should have no importance on the senpai/kōhai relationship but because we are such a large organization and many of us do not train together on a regular basis the term senpai when referring to one of greater rank is more about respect than the true nature of the senpai-kōhai relationship.  It is more about sincerly caring about eachother than a pride or rank thing.

Two people may both be students at the same school, but if one is a first-year student and the other is a third-year, then that would constitute a senpai/kōhai relationship. I feel the obligation is more important for the senpai than the kōhai in that it should be their responsibility to teach proper etiquette, traditions, rules of the dojo as well as mentor their progress form a technical standpoint.

 What does this relationship entail? The kōhai is put into a bit of a subordinate position, respecting the senpai’s seniority. In return, the senpai is supposed to look after, take care of, and guide the kohai. Only Senpai is used as a title. Kohai isn’t used by the senior to refer to the lower. Only the person’s name is used.

A common misconception is that the senpai acts the same way a sensei (先生), or teacher does. There are some similarities between a senpai and sensei, but there’s also a big difference between the two. It’s rare that a senpai ever becomes a proper teacher to his/her kōhai although they usually remain in the same sort of senpai/kōhai relationship.

 Japanese is ambiguous in the use of the term sempai. It can be used as an endearment to show one’s submission and status. It can be used as a formal mark of etiquette. It can be used as a way to nudge people’s expectations of personal relationships. Those individuals who seek an equal and relaxed method of communication, will ask that they not be called by the title of sempai, but that’s usually only a decision made by the top ranker, not the bottom and should be honored.

I think we all should study this concept along with our training to both learn more about it’s importance within the dojo, and understanding of the karate we wish to comprehend.