In a traditional Japanese Dojo there exists a very special relationship known as the Senpai-Kohai (juniors and seniors) system. When you begin your education in a dojo, those already training there are your seniors, your Senpai. Those who come after you are your Kohai , your juniors, and so it remains, regardless of rank, age or experience. Since everyone has a relationship to those above or below him, this system keeps things moving in an orderly manner. It employs a method called ON-GIRI (debt, duty or obligation). The junior has a certain debt which he owes his seniors by virtue of their willingness to pass on what the have learned. The senior in turn has a duty to his Sensei and dojo to bring his junior up through the ranks as a big brother would a little brother (whether ‘brother’ is either male or female). By being your senior, by helping you, kicking you when you are lazy, by acting as an advisor, coach and confidant, the Senpai assumes a tremendous responsibility. The Kohai who has been tutored and taken care of by his Senpai becomes an ONJIN, a person under obligation, and as old Japanese adage goes, “ Life and death are light as a feather, but obligation, obligation is heavy as a mountain.”.
The Master Instructor or System Head, is responsible for teaching the Sensei (even though his students may also receive instruction during seminars and clinics).The Sensei is responsible for disseminating information to the seniors of the dojo, even though many of the juniors profit from his/her instruction. But it is the seniors’ responsibility to tutor the juniors along and help whenever possible. Often the instruction is not as formal as the Sensei’s, rather it is given by example. Just as every Sensei has his/her specific method of passing on a style, every senior student unconsciously develops a favoured method for helping Sensei do so. These methods become like a dojo sub-style. When a visitor from another dojo settles in, he may have a few lessons to teach himself, or he may have a few to receive depending on where he falls in the senpai-kohai relationship.
Based upon the deep respect for loyalty and obligation that characterised old Japan, the Senpai-Kohai relationship is one that often extends throughout the lives of those involved in it. It is a convention that allows a Kohai to begin to develop the attitudes of helpfulness and leadership that are necessary for mastery and so in a reciprocal way the lives of the Senpai and Kohai are bettered.
At times, the Senpai-Kohai system may seem difficult. For the junior it may seem that his movements are criticised. Even outside the dojo he finds his behaviour under the watchful eye of a senior who is quick to chasten. In spite of its apparent drawbacks, it really works rather well.
If you are beginner in the martial arts, remember that and listen carefully to the advice of your Senpai. Their experience is hard won. If you are a more advanced student, keep in mind that training is only a part of your purpose in the dojo. There are Kohai in need of your guidance and it is up to you to set the example.