Updated: Oct 12
In Japan, the senpai-kohai system underlies nearly all relationships. Although there is no exact translation into English, senpai (先輩) roughly means a senior or older person with whom you have dealings. Conversely, kohai (後輩) is the junior or younger person. This system permeates Japanese society. The senpai-kohai system is actually more than just a rank where the older members get special privileges. It is a mentor system in which senpai have to teach and support kohai.
Senpai are not monarchs—they are not born to rule. Senpai are seniors; their responsibilities include guiding and mentoring those junior to them. They earn their positions; they do not acquire them through an accident of birth, an act of dominance, or a democratic election. Senpai are people who have invested considerable time, effort, and expense to acquire a set of traditions, techniques, and understandings that they share with people who do not have the same experience: kohai.
The rule that binds the senpai is that they must constantly examine and evaluate all the factors affecting their practice and that of others. They are to act in a way that is in the best interest of their kohai.
Senpai are, among other things, honor-bound to ensure an environment conducive to the acquisition of the art. The kohai’s job is to trust that good intent and follow the senpai’s lead—cognizant of the fact, of course, that the senpai is human and may (will!) be in error sometimes, but that overall the direction is a sound one.
The senpai-kohai system is built on trust that the senpai is responsible—not that they are perfect. Because senpai have committed themselves to the overall good of the art and the welfare of the student body (and they have paid the “dues” for that level of responsibility), they are entrusted with the direction of other students.
While the role of senpai can be challenging, it is difficult to be kohai, too. In Western culture, there is a strong sense of individuality and a strong need to be personally noticed. Budo (the martial ways), however, teaches us to trust the good intent of others. In Budo, we are trying to reduce the sense that things must go “our way”. We do this not to become submissive but to allow our minds to become unfettered by preconception—so that we can blend with the attack of a person who truly wishes us harm and then neutralize that attack. Minds that are locked into having things “their way” may be overwhelmed by an attack that doesn’t meet their expectations.
There are many scenarios that can occur in senpai-kohai relationships, and the rules are nuanced and complex because, for one, sometimes there is not a huge seniority difference between training partners (compared, on the other hand, to the relationship of student and teacher where the guidelines are more clear). Additionally, sometimes a kohai in the dojo is actually one’s senior (age-wise) or may, in other areas of life (work, family, etc.), be much more adept. In addition, the frequency of interactions between senpai and kohai is usually quite great, so there is an inherent opportunity for many different circumstances to arise. To list out every possible permutation would be futile and far beyond the scope of this article.
That said, it is never the kohai’s job to correct their senpai. By correcting a senpai, the kohai is making several statements: one, that the instructor has not done their job in teaching the senior correctly; two, that the kohai considers themself knowledgeable; and three, that the kohai does not need to work on their own practice. Whenever we are correcting, we are transmitting, and we cannot both transmit and receive. Likewise, a senpai should be careful not to over-correct—i.e., focusing more on correcting than simply training. While a point of correction can be helpful, it is not the senpai’s job to teach during class. This is a large trap for senpai that can significantly stunt their own growth.
By abiding the senpai-kohai relationship (“playing the game,” if you will), we are signaling to those around us that we accept the practices, and are indeed present to learn and train. Abiding one’s role—which can shift in an instant from senpai to kohai—is a powerful way of showing this: “I am here to learn. You can trust me.”
As a final point, the rule that kohai should not compliment senpai is perhaps less obvious. However, it should be noted that—especially in Aikido—we are there to receive everything life has to offer, without judgment. That, in and of itself, is a lifelong practice.
Andrew Benioff began his study of Budo in 1982 with the practice of Isshinryu Karate-do. He continued from 1983–1997 studying Jidokwan (Korean Karate). In 1988, while living in Hawaii, he began his study of Aikido with Yoshioka Sadao Shihan. Shortly after that, he moved to Japan, where he lived for four-and-a-half years, continuing his practice of Jidokwan and beginning Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo. From 1990–1992 he lived in Tokyo where he attended classes at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo four to fives days per week. He was lucky enough to take classes regularly with Ni-Dai Doshu Ueshiba Kisshomaru, Osawa Kisaburo Shihan, Yamaguchi Seigo Shihan, Arikawa Sadateru Shihan, and Miyamoto Tsuruzo Shihan, among many others.
Mr. Benioff returned from Japan in 1992 and moved to San Francisco where he continued his study of Aikido with Joel Posluns Shihan who founded the San Francisco Aikikai under the direction of Yamada Yoshimitsu Shihan and Kanai Mistunari Shihan. Benioff’s aikido is strongly influenced by the teachings of both Kanai and Miyamoto Sensei. He continues his practice today in Philadelphia at Lemon Hill Aikido, a Birankai-affiliated dojo.