Sunday, February 11, 2007

Rank, and its "privileges..."

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.


jafnit said...

Thanks, jrf. I imagined this topic was going to make it here. There is much that is culturally understood in our art that does not translate without a detailed explanation. The sempai, kohai relationship is one of these.

shinobi.wind said...

I wanted to add a few comments. The young man in question is 19 and has been training with us since well before I began my training 8 years ago. In spite of the distractions of being a teenager, he has kept up with his training which is a lot more than can be said about most people his age. My comment was not intended to boast about myself, but to push him to work harder. While I have been training for a while an have been granted the rank of Shodan, I understand that I can learn alot from all of my training partners, sempai or kohai.

mark lane kingsley said...


your teacher is correct. the world does need green belts. just as it needs make believe un-tried "warriors". you know the kind i mean.

now before you and your ilk get all spun up.... save it. i have heard all about how one can study a "true warrior art" and apply it's teachings and life lessons to ones computer job, and how "everyone feels safer when i come home to be with them from my life threatening day at the post office.......... uh, well maybe that's a bad example, but you get the point. What good is learning anything on the mere hope that it works someday... only to find out that at the moment of truth, all the kata, all the cool traditional clothes and garb, all the promotional gear and all the money spent on seminars and lessons means nothing but an ass beating at the hands of a thug who has not spent one day at the karate school.

now, tell me again why belt ranks are important?

for those who fight for it, freedom has a taste that the sheltered will never know.

jrf said...

Yes, sir, I know exactly the kind you mean... And you're right. We can't all be Marine Riflemen, or even Marine Biologists. I can tell you this: We all serve in our own way. Some of us serve more than others.

I make no special assertions about myself: 13 long years in the Bujinkan. Some of those years were passing time; some I sweated. Along the way I'v accumulated my fair share of toys and tricks. I've met plenty of interesting people. More than a few were couch potatoes. A handful were living, breathing warriors by profession. Most fell somewhere in between.

I've seen black belts I respect come up short in a bar fight. I've seen kids who cowered in schoolyard fights sign up to go to war. I guess you never know until you're there.

No one in my class thinks any colored cloth will enable them to beat-up everyone in their neighborhood. And that wasn't even part of my posting on rank and seniority. In fact, you'll note a consipicuous absence of any mention of that. At its best, a martial arts rank is an outward sign of achievement within a particular endeavor. But I don't need advanced rank to know a simple truth of combat: on any given day, anyone can kill anyone else. It can be a mistake, or by pure luck. And it doesn't matter what degree black belt you are -- or how many Hoo-ah Schools you've graduated.

Sorry I'm not spun up about how tough martial arts have made me. I'm not really that tough. Truth be told, I'm a big geek. Plenty of my classmates can land a good punch on me. But I'm not going to apologize for my love of martial arts or military history just because I don't fit some image you have. As you say, it takes all kinds.

The true warriors I've been privileged to meet respect those who respect them. I don't know who you are. If you're in a warrior's profession, you should stop acting like a bully. Karma will find a way to knock that chip off your shoulder. And nobody is tougher than karma. If you're just a self-proclaimed tough guy... remember when you point a finger, three more point back at you. Go ahead, laugh; I didn't start the Middle School level tantrum. You can't escape yourself. I'm comfortable with who I am, are you?

Now, that said, you are still welcome to stick around if you think this blog will have content you're interested in reading. Or, you can leave. No one here will make you read. If all you're going to do is make rude remarks, prepare to be ignored.

Of course, you can always cuss me out with a cheap parting shot. But if you don't play nice, this will be the last time you are addressed.

If you'll excuse me, I have to return to my computer job down at the post office...

mlk said...

just playing devil's advocate. trying to stir the pot and maybe get some heartfelt conversation going.I see it works.think on this is it to serve man?(if you are the geek you claim to be, you will know this reference). Bully indeed. Mental note: rude remarks= out. soft porn=in. got it.

Byrdmaniac said...

I can personally attest to JRF's credentials as a bona fide geek.

Tommy Arshikage said...

Greetings, Shadow Warriors! I have lurked for many months without comment, but I feel compelled by the conversation to rush to JRF's defense.

MiLK, your tone was far, far too aggressive in your first comment. I fear you may have insulted poor JRF's honor, or worse, insulted his friends ("ilk?") in such a way that he felt compelled to act. I know he can take a decent amount of teasing, but you insinuated that the postings here do not come from real "warriors." Hmmm... I think you'll find these folks understand the line they walk between warrior and Warrior. And you'll find that you do not need to be quite so baiting to provoke thoughtful conversation from good ole' JRF.

You asked why anyone would study an art on the off chance they might someday "need" it? My own take is that combat effectiveness is only one aspect of martial arts training, and everyone studies the arts for their own reasons. I once taught my student, Billy, that the only reason to master violence was to conquer violence.

But what do I know? I'm only a fictional ninja master.

Anonymous said...

FL has enjoyed your posting!!!

Holy Mother Eph said...

JRF isn't really in need of our added defense. His intelligence and eloquence with the written word are equalled by few in blogspace. Which is why I have returned here for near on a year. This blog has good writing, intelligent perspective, and topics I almost always like. I learn from it. It's not a waste of time, like my own blog is to read. I think the qualities of this blog speak something of the personal character of the author. Don't knock him.