My Saturday afternoon training session featured a quick comment that held loads of implications.
One young man joined our training a few minutes late. He was kidded, and our Fearless Leader joked that it was fine by him if the young man chose to be late because, "The world needed Green Belts too." (A note, our system only has three color belts: white, for no ranking; green for the kyu ranked mudansha, and black for the dan ranked yudansha.)
One of our Shodan, and a frequent commentor on this blog, continued the joke by saying, "I out-rank him, and he was here when I started." FL thought this might make for a good blog topic, and I agree.
Our young friend does represent an unusual situation, but not unheard of. And our Shodan points out the differences between the concepts of "seniority" and "rank" in the martial arts.
"Seniority" is bound up in the concepts of Sempai and Kohai. These are terms relating solely to the time one has spent in a particular martial tradition. If I join a new school and new art tomorrow, all of the current students and instructors would be my Sempai. They would have certain responsibilities regarding me, as I would be thier Kohai. They would be responsible for showing me around the school, instructing me in the peculiar rituals of the class or art, and generally making sure I don't muck it all up. Basically, this comes down to "showing me the ropes." The instructor, usually termed a sensei, is there to share instruction in the art, but teaching me how and when to bow, or how to wear my dogi is the job of my senior students.
As Kohai, my job is to learn and graciously accept the hints and suggestions from my seniors. I also accept the responsibility to share this information with the next student to join the class. When that happens, I become his Sempai.
This arrangement reflects the old idea of the Ryu, or tradition. Ryu is one of those Japanese words that holds many meanings, one of which is "flow," with a connotation of "flowing through time." The nature of the Sempai/Kohai relationship stresses the continuing flow of the tradition ever forward in time. Someone taught my teacher, who instructs me, and I will pass it on to the next generation. We are all responsible for passing on the small rituals that form our tradition.
Sempai are not, however, a privileged class. As they advance in seniority, they are expected to take on more responsibility in the school. In a truly traditional school, it is the senior-most sempai who are responsible for cleaning the dojo's practice space. It is the brand new student who has the luxury of arriving just as class begins. Sempai are their to serve and provide examples for the Kohai.
My school is not the image of a traditional dojo. It is an efficiently run, store front with all the amenities of mats, equipment, and other tools. It doesn't take one long to realize this is not the much derided "McDojo," despite the large number of small children enrolled. It has a staff that takes care of the basic maintenance of the space. Even so, I have my jobs as a senior student. The most ritual of those jobs is to light the candles on the Kamidana, or spirit shelf, before class.
There are other little things I try to perform as actions for others to see. For one, I always start as the Uke when we work on kata or other techniques. This is, in fact, a traditional role of the sempai -- and one much neglected. Many students want the more advanced person to act as the Tori or Nage in order to see who the technique is done one more time. No. In traditional thinking, the model for the technique or kata is the teacher. The reason the senior student goes first is that presumably he has seen and done the technique before and has a better understanding of how and why it works. It is the sempai's responsibility to correctly initiate the technique. Perhaps you've heard the joke: "Like many beginners, your attack is completely wrong." There's actually a degree of truth in that. Each attack prompts a particular response. The sempai must correctly attack for the technique in question to be practiced correctly. To change the punch, or the distance, or the timing... That cheats the Tori of good practice.
If you don't believe me, consider the last time you worked with a partner who was sloppy. Did things work? Probably not without great difficulty. Now, that's a form of training too, but we all know it is "perfect practice" that makes perfect.
To bring this train of thought to a destination, each of us is a Sempai and Kohai to some other student. We need to remember the essential point of the relationship, which is respect for the passing on of tradition. We shouldn't get caught up in the politics of who outranks who, or I've got more time in that that guy. By acknowledging those aspects, we are simply paying respect to a particular person's dedication and involvement in the art. We also need to understand that seniorty brings not privilege but deepening involvement and commitment to the art and our fellow students.
Study on this well.