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Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Senpai / Kohai Relationship... How does it work?



+Tony Vivolo asked me if I would do a piece on Senpai/Kohai relationships and how they are really supposed to work. This is a very good topic and I'd like to share with you what I know.

This system has actually been around in Japan since before the Segoku Period in Japan however it is not something that we are not familiar with.  In other parts of the world, there are Master and Apprentice examples that go back as far before since trade and commerce have been in existance. While the system is a lot different than the Senpai/Kohai system today... however the roots are not that different.

Modern day Senpai/Kohai system actually was improved and put into effect by the Shimazu Lords of the Satsuma Government (Kyushu - Kagoshima, Southern Japan) during the Meiji Period.  While there was a Master and Apprentice system in place for those who were born into a family within a certain trade (higher status trade such as swordsmiths, tea ceremony masters, caligraphy, ikebana, etc.), for lower castes... including Lower House Samurai, there really was no "mentoring" system that was different from the period's Master and Apprentice system.

With trade bearing from Okinawa, China, Korea, and with the Black Ships arriving along with the already existing Portuguese and Dutch, the Satsuma Government had already been working towards modernizing Japan, of course without the permission of the Shogun Family.  A good modern day interpretation of the incidents leading up to and through the Meiji Revolution and Restoration is a NHK period drama called Atsu-hime... which showed the political maneuverings of Shimazu Lords to get Japan to open its borders and catch up with the rest of the world. 

Due to southern Japan modernizing quickly, using the encroachment of the west as an excuse, they needed to be able to teach people very quickly on how to adapt and learn about western technology and ideals.  The funny fact is that this started mainly in the lower house samurai ranks becuase they were the ones who were the main work horses for the house lords.  In order to teach the ways of the new world quickly, the older and more experienced members would take it upon themselves to teach and mentor the younger inexperienced members coming on or those coming of age.  This broke all sorts of rules of ettiquette, however, with the Satsuma Government becoming more and more open minded to open trade and worldly views, while it took some time eventually this bode well with  lower castes as it helped to facilitate a core group of leaders who would not have come into their own if the strict Japanese caste system were to be in place. Famous pioneers such as Saigo Takamori, Okubo Toshimichi, and Sakamoto Ryoma are big players during this period of those who came from lower houses ended up as national leaders.

Today, the Senpai/Kohai relationship has been ridiculed by some modern day Japanese saying that it is a archane practice... however, it is still heavily practiced in virtually every social strata starting from Junior High to the work place.  Generations still give way to those who came before them because they feel that they can learn from those who are more experienced. The system has also given into some abuse of those who realize they can use the system to control their juniors. Juniors are reluctant to oppose because they don't want to stick out as a troublemaker. (Deru Kugi wa Tatakareru... the nail that sticks out gets hammered)

The abuse of this practice is something I highly oppose because it can lead to hazing and a brutal continual pattern that we have seen here in the United States, for example the Greek Franternity/Soroity system utilized by Universities and Colleges.  Also... we have seen this in High School sports programs such as American Football.  Currently, in Japan with the issues of bullying, we do hear about the abuse in the Junior High and High School systems.  Some of this does carry over to martial arts or sports especially when a Senpai has the authority and the strength to back it up... looking to abuse not foster a brotherly relationship.

It is my humble opinion that those who abuse the system do not understand the system's true intent.  In Karate we have this system because we use it to push each other.  Kohai's should have the will to try and exceed their Senpai however should still have the respect for their Senpais if they do exceed their Senpai's ability.  The Senpai should push their Kohai to exceed them and should applaud them if they do so.  The ability to share their knowledge and build cameraderie is the beauty of the Senpai/Kohai system.  The ability for Karateka to be able to push and support each other is my understanding of the true intent behind the system.  This system transcends being an instructor or a master because somewhere in the world there is someone who knows more and has more experience than you do.  Somewhere in the world, there is someone who is quicker and faster than you.  How do you become better, it is to rely on your seniors, your peers, and your juniors, regardless if you are a 8th Dan Hanshi and the founder of your system. 

In martial arts... no one is self made.