Foreword: This essay was published in the AKKA
December 2008 email newsletter, produced by Hanshi John Taylor. I
reproduce it here, without permission, but with full acknowledgement,
because I think it expresses some valuable attitudes and thoughts
that we all should heed, bearing in mind that, especially if you are
a blackbelt, you are always both sensei and senpai in the truest sense
i.e. as teacher and student.
I feel it's one of the more significant pieces of writing about
practical matters that I have seen in a long time. This is not about
spiritual mumbo-jumbo that so many writers seem to take delight in
- it's actually a very practical (dojo) management issue, and I expect
you'd find something quite similar in many corporate management handbooks.
- Shaharin Yussof
What does it mean to be a Senpai? The simple meaning is
to understand the definition. Senpai translates as "Senior"
and can be applied in any situation where someone is senior to you.
The Japanese term is used in school, business, the arts, and of course
the martial ways. But the meaning for those in a traditionally run martial
art group is far deeper than simply "Senior."
The history of Senpai is long. The position has existed
in warrior groups since warrior groups began, and is not just a Japanese
phenomenon. Originally Senpai was the most senior warrior in the group,
under the group's commander or leader. His responsibility has always
been awesome and harder than anyone else in the group. He was responsible
for the development and direction of the lower warriors, and for the
protection of the leader. No other position in a warrior group had these
responsibilities. In the Japanese martial arts, the position remains
The Senpai of a dojo had trained for a long time with
the headmaster. He understood the headmasters (Sensei's) goals, training
methodologies, and philosophies. He also understood Sensei as a warrior
and as a person. More than these understandings, he had privileges and
knowledge about Sensei that other students did not. Thus this made Sensei
vulnerable to Senpai. With that vulnerability came trust by Sensei and
responsibility by Senpai. With these privileges and knowledge about
Sensei, Senpai had the sole responsibility to protect Sensei with his
life. This often meant that Senpai was forced to train harder than both
the students and the Sensei, for if a student or enemy saw that Senpai
was vulnerable or easily beatable - there was surely an opening to get
at Sensei. In times of war, Senpai was either the strongest or the weakest
link in the command chain. A Senpai who was not the strongest was quickly
replaced out of necessity.
Being Senpai meant you were personally responsible for
the training of Kohai (juniors). Upon review by Sensei, all Kohai must
measure up to Sensei's standards or Senpai was directly to blame. Senpai
was personally responsible for Kohai etiquette. This was most important.
Any breaches in etiquette in the dojo were reprimanded by Senpai, not
Sensei. If Sensei had to make the correction, it simply meant Senpai
was not doing his job. If either of these situations happened more than
a few times, Senpai was replaced with someone who could accomplish the
Being Senpai also meant you were the only person in the
dojo that Sensei completely recognised for his martial skill. He is
the one person who Sensei "feared" in the group. Most often
Senpai was the fiercest and smartest person in the warrior group besides
Sensei. The difference is that it was Sensei's position to lead in a
calm, controlled and sophisticated manner, whereas Senpai maintained
control through toughness, fierceness, and a no-nonsense attitude. It
was and IS Senpai's responsibility to immediately correct any breach
in etiquette toward Sensei, stop any threat toward Sensei, correct technical
insufficiencies of the Kohai, and dominate in training. Those who could
not fulfil these responsibilities were removed.
With all this responsibility, Senpai is still the best
"job" in the dojo. You are the dominant warrior. You maintain
the relationship between Sensei and students. You get the special training
with Sensei. You set and maintain the attitude in the dojo. Traditionally
you are the one who commands the students. When you see Sensei ready
to start class you tell the students to line up. You tell the students
to bow to Sensei. You smack them on the back of the head when they are
fooling around instead of training. You save the new student from abuse
by more experienced students. You are solely responsible for resetting
the tone of a group of students if it is going in the wrong direction.
At the same time - you are the person most looked up to in the dojo.
You are recognized as the person nobody wants to mess with. You are
the one the students watch when you contest with Sensei - because they
know you are the one most likely to catch Sensei when he makes a technical
There are others in the dojo referred to as Senpai
- and it means Senior. That is a black belt, a member of the Yudansha
- one who is senior to the mudansha (those below black belt). But being
THE Senpai is something different. THE Senpai sits in front of the black
belt senpai at an angle both to Sensei and the black belts. This position
is necessary because the Senpai needs to see both Sensei and Students.
His back can be turned to neither if he is to protect Sensei. Being
THE Senpai means you train directly with Sensei and Sensei confers with
you on strategy, technique, and running the training sessions at the
dojo. The Senpai should make every effort to be at Sensei's dojo as
often as possible. In warrior history it was always - but today's modern
society - not at war - often means making it to class as often as practical.
The Senpai should always be concerned that some other student is receiving
more training than him, is training harder than him, and is perhaps
taking over his position without him knowing it. Senpai constantly looks
at students with distrust - being the barrier between the students and
The Senpai should not rush toward being a Sensei in his
own dojo. Because all of these duties, which a correctly chosen Senpai's
personality is natural for, will go away. In order to be Sensei you
must re-invent yourself and become something else. When that day comes
- a true Senpai will look back on his days as The Senpai as the "glory
days", which he will sorely long for the rest of his days.
This is what it means to be THE Senpai.