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East Meets West: “The Sempai-Kohai Seniority System”

by Midori Yamamoto

Aiki News #31 (September 1978)

Ted Morris had been training Aikido at a Japanese dojo about a month. During that period, not only did he practice Aikido techniques in earnest, but he also made a special effort to learn the etiquette observed at the dojo. There was one phenomenon in particular which struck him as extremely strange. It was the ordered sitting arrangement of the students from left to right, junior to senior, at the beginning and the end of class.

At the dojo, whose sensei placed great importance on the observance of the formalities and traditions of Japanese martial arts, sitting in order according to the kyu-dan ranking system is practiced out of respect for an old custom. It is an established convention accepted among the Japanese quite naturally. Ted, however, saw no reason why students should sit in a special order. Nor did he understand the meaning of the “sempai-kohai” system which served as the basis of the ordering.

As usual, he asked Shigeru about this: “Of course, I don’t know very much yet, but I’m confused about why we sit in a specific order according to a seniority system. I don’t think it matters at all where we sit. It seems to me that Mr. S who is sitting on Mr. N’s left is really a stronger Aikidoist.” “It’s tradition,” answered Shigeru, “Not all of the Japanese dojos adopt this way of sitting, though. In some dojos they sit at random. But the ‘sempai-kohai’ system is generally regarded as essential to maintain order and discipline in the dojo. The ‘sempai’ (senior students) are expected to take care of the ‘kohai’ (junior students) and help them in their practice; and the kohai are to accept orders and advice from the sempai. You’ll find this to be of great benefit in your training as Sensei cannot teach each student individually. The whole dojo forms a vertically-layered group-unit or ‘family’ with Sensei as its head. The ordered sitting is, as it were, a clear manifestation of a vertical system of human relations.” Further, Shigeru explained that the entire Japanese society has a similar vertical structure and that the idea of respecting sempai, literally meaning “those who entered the path earlier,” as more experienced is fundamentally the same as the practice among Japanese of deferring to elder people and those in higher social positions. He also mentioned that this custom derives from Confucian thought originating in China and adopted by the Japanese at an early point in their history.

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