What are the benefits of a formal senpai/kohai relationship within the cadre of a western (aka based in the UK) Aikido dojo?

I am interested in personal experience (not opinions) as to whether there are any benefits to a senpai/kohai relationship for enhancing the process of learning Aikido. Since I am a western teaching westerners (mostly), that relationship would require some setting up thus I want to know if there are any benefits to doing it. I would be happy to hear about other martial arts as well but since I am teaching/learning Aikido, this is where my focus is.

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    this question, while a question, really is discussional in style.... Feb 9, 2012 at 11:10
  • @KeithNicholas: From a point of view maybe but the question semantics mean that I am soliciting facts and not discussions, argumentations, and opinions. Of course, I maybe wrong but I think this would be on topic and acceptable. Feb 9, 2012 at 11:18
  • There are three questions here: what are the benefits of learning Aikido, what is a senpai-kohai relationship, and do you know of a western aikido dojo that actually preserves the japanese culture enough to have a good senpai-kohai relationship. I think that's too much for just one question... Please consider asking three questions instead.
    – Anon
    Feb 9, 2012 at 16:01
  • @Trevoke: Okay, I was not fully clear. Does the edit help? Feb 9, 2012 at 17:01
  • @Sardathrion The way I read the question now, I consider it perfectly acceptable. I'm waiting for the follow-up question of "how to set up a senpai/kohai relationship in an American school" :-)
    – Anon
    Feb 9, 2012 at 18:47

6 Answers 6


Something to understand: In Japanese society, the Sempai / Kohai relationship is largely organic. In a status-based society, the senior and junior naturally recognize their obligations to each other, and follow these social norms without issue.

In Japan, the Sempai / Kohai relationship is not simply a one-way relationship. It's not simply the junior having an opportunity to train with a senior member, it's not about simply communal respect... Any attempt to simplify the understanding of the relationship is to neglect its sociological importance in an upwardly motivated society.

Sempai (先輩) – The Elder/Senior

Most westerners attempt to understand this relationship in the terms of the Master/Protégé relationships of artisans and their assistants. This is incorrect. The sempai is a person acknowledged as having earned the privilege of a higher status by means of seniority within the organization. Age or even ability do not necessarily dictate sempai status.

Within martial arts, typically this sort of role is fostered by example; the advanced students (dan and high kyu ranks) are encouraged or placed with students that are newer to the organization. They recall being taught in a manner that their senior would instruct them in fine points, to correct them in issues that the sensei might miss as he watches over the whole group. The sempai, therefore, is responsible for the growth of the kohai. In this way, the sempai is responsible for the guidance, protection, and teaching of the kohai.

In businesses, you might view the manager or supervisor as sempai, and this would largely be accurate. It's important to note that this relationship better illustrates the importance of the sempai role – in fact, his advancement and development is as tied into his kohai's abilities as his own. A poor manager does not get promoted.

Kohai (後輩) – The Junior

The kohai has much expected of him as well. In many schools, the kohai is often burdened with the "grunt" work, expected to clean the dojo, stack mats after training, and may even be required to do laundry. This is often viewed as a means of testing the resolve of the kohai. Essentially, the expectation of the kohai is to respect, obey, and assist their sempai, and this relationship will generally continue for as long as the two maintain contact, regardless of any transition in status.

Benefits of the Sempai/Kohai relationship

The relationship between these two roles is symbiotic; both parties are benefitting from their interaction. The sempai gains the experience necessary to become sensei; kohai gains the experience necessary to become sempai. If both parties acknowledge and respect their part in the society, then the formal nature of the class is upheld, and a natural order is maintained in the class as a whole. The sensei / sempai / kohai hierarchy is symbolic of the larger hierarchy of feudal structures which defined and shaped Japan as a society, and continue to do so even in the post-Imperialist age.

The individuals benefit from this sort of relationship on an individual level; it's vital that the newly indoctrinated be protected and trained, that the elder students learn what it means to lead and to follow (you are, even as sempai, still kohai to someone) and to be responsible not just for yourself but for the class as a whole.

Fostering a natural sensei/sempai/kohai hierarchy in the dojo

[NB: I found this structure common in a study of cults I did at university. I've adapted it to the use of Japanese names, but this pattern exists in cults, secret societies, religions, pyramid schemes, and even in a great number of highly commercialized dojo. TAKE NOTE: This method is extremely subversive and not recommended. It is posed here as one way of establishing a hierarchical microcosmic society.]

Introducing this as a concept is artificial; the students should never be expected to adopt an entirely new way of acting and behaving and be expected to not rebel. Instead, an indoctrination format can be adopted to create natural hierarchies within the classroom, but it must be done patiently with a longterm goal in mind.

  • Create a hierarchical divion. When you examine your class, find the median rank. Sometimes it's easiest to divide at around 4th kyu, but this may alter based on your class size and ranking. A scatter-plot of your students ranks can help with this. The "upper" group will be sempai, having earned more rank. The lower division will be kohai.

  • Match your own pairings. When you break apart for waza, tell ranks x-kyu and up to pair with a junior student. Start by using the terms "senior" and "junior". You're cementing an idea of rank being an important issue here insofar as who can train with whom. After a couple of months, start slipping up once in awhile: "Seniors, join up with your kohai, er, juniors"... Then after a while stop correcting yourself... Sometimes you sempai for seniors, other times used kohai for juniors. After a while you shouldn't need to correct or use english terms at all for these two divisions.

  • Reward natural pairings. When a senior student naturally pairs up with a junior student, acknowledge the senior student. The junior student should want to pair with the senior student, as they should understand they stand to learn more, and thus need no acknowledgment. In fact, they'll seek it more if they never seem to receive that attention.

  • Address the senior students. When you teach, teach to the sempai, and the sempai will teach to the kohai.

  • Maintain and enforce hierarchy. Traditionally, students are lined up according to rank, usually front to back, right to left, highest to lowest for bowing. This may differ based on the organization, but insist on the order. You're affirming the importance of hierarchy.

  • Do not explain yourself. You are sensei. You do not need to explain yourself to your subordinates; they are all kohai to you, and their place is to obey and respect you. The fact that you want things this way means that should be enough of an explanation. Encourage those who follow, do not waste much time with those who don't.

I'm not encouraging you to take this route, but this is a way that you can indoctrinate (and I use this term because it's appropriate and reflects the sort of attention this behavior draws in the west) your students into hierarchical structures. Make the change gradual, and they won't notice anything amiss; too rapid of a change and everything will fall apart.

  • How much of this information should be added to the wiki article linked by the OP? It is fairly empty.
    – Anon
    Feb 14, 2012 at 3:55
  • And as another comment - the way you indicated to set up the sempai/kohai relationship is, as you said, extremely subversive. I'm worried that people who don't read everything will miss that part of your post. Could you please emphasize that a little more?
    – Anon
    Feb 14, 2012 at 3:57
  • @Trevoke: I think all of it should be included but I would leave that to stslavik to do if they wished it. Feb 14, 2012 at 7:51
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    @Trevoke: Noted; I'll add a disclaimer to the subversive nature.
    – stslavik
    Feb 14, 2012 at 16:48

In the dojo I am studying in more senior students are responsible for helping less senior with their techniques, preparing for the tests, etc. It is custom for more senior students to work with more junior ones, which is beneficial both for beginners - they enjoy the best example while their basics are not set yet and they also are more safe since the senior student knows better how to adjust his techniques if and when the junior student does something wrong.

The relationship should naturally follow from this - I think it is natural to respect somebody who is more knowledgeable and advanced in something than you and at the same time gladly shares his knowledge and helps your advancement. It is also natural, having received such help while being junior student, to pass it to one's juniors when becoming more experienced. I think it is as natural for the Western person as it is for anybody else - there's nothing non-Western in this concept. Of course, for some cultures it goes much deeper than that but even for a Western person like myself there's nothing wrong with it.

I can speak only about the dojo I'm studying in, but there are people of all kinds of backgrounds and descents, and I haven't noticed anybody having problems with accepting this concept. I have benefitted from it on both sides of the relationship - while being helped by more advanced students and now when I have some experience by refining my techniques while working with more junior students and discovering new aspects while trying to assist them. I think this arrangement makes a lot of sense.


A senpai/kohai relationship fosters the correct attitude of respectful practice and community. It makes, in a sense, everyone responsible for everyone else's practice - always show the best example, always try your best.

The downside to doing it in the US is that, unless there is already some things borrowed from the Japanese culture, it might feel overly artificial to explain this in detail, because it is such an intrinsic part of the aforementioned culture.


Little Brother gets into trouble, Big Brother bails him out.

If you understand this, you understand sempai and kohai. Formalized rules distract you from the main thing. The good stuff is in what's unsaid.

The clever will notice that this is the essence of "splitting" in xingyiquan.

  • My turn. I believe there is more to the elder/junior relationship than "getting your junior out of trouble". As it it, there would be no benefit for the elder, which I think isn't true. It also fails to mention any of the possible learning/teaching aspects and benefits of the relation. Feb 13, 2012 at 20:06
  • @Mikalichov heheheheh, being responsible for and taking care of someone changes you as a person. And this change takes you right to the essence of martial arts. Feb 13, 2012 at 21:57
  • @Mikalichov He who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know. (note - this is not a criticism addressed to you, but a relevant quote of the Tao Te Ching).
    – Anon
    Feb 14, 2012 at 3:58
  • Taking the risk of looking persistant, I still think than when someone asks a question, he asks for an answer, and an explanation of the answer. An answer that is understandable mainly by the answerer, and possibly by another small subset of people (and maybe not even in the way intended by the answerer) is in my opinion not an answer, but merely a comment. As a bonus, a quote from my place says "When in doubt, don't use a quote". Feb 14, 2012 at 4:26
  • @Mikalichov I try to answer in a way where there is both an obvious and a not-so-obvious answer. In this case, I didn't. This came after years of chasing down the wrong thing. Looking for a specific code of honor. Looking for a specific set of rules. Turned out, my teachers and the older students had already figured it out ... and it is a lot simpler than precise calculations the same way your body starts naturally flowing faster than your ability to calculate. Do you trust your sempai to pull you from the brink? Would you give yourself to look out for your kohai? Feb 14, 2012 at 5:04

I am lucky enough to be the only westerner in an otherwise 100% Vietnamese club, so I think I can help.

The words sempai/kohai are obviously not used, but I know who are my "elders" and my "juniors" (I never tried to name the difference before, sorry if it doesn't sound right). The belts have a role, but not only.

The elder/junior relationship

Basically, everyone that was already there before you started is your elder, everyone that starts after you is your junior. It is nuanced by the belts: someone with a higher belt is always your elder, someone with a lower belt is always a junior.

It is not static though, and "ranking" changes inside a belt. I have become the elder of some people of the same belt than me, because I came more often, and so learned more than them.

Age has almost no influence, as you will consider someone your elder regardless of his age (as an example, one of my elder is 7 years old, and I respectfully listen to his advice). Age only plays a role if two people are of the same belt, and approximately the same experience: then the older one will be the elder of the younger one.

Even though it is not clearly defined, you see it best during group practices: everyone organize by lines/rows, and no one would position himself before someone he considers his elder. As a result, the group ends up organized from more experienced to less experienced, very naturally.


The main benefit is pretty simple actually. It means that during group practices, you have in front of you someone who is a bit better than you. And it is really, really effective for training.

The other benefit is also related to training: Since the teachers can't be everywhere at the same time, your elders will act as sub-teachers for you. As long as there is a good understanding of who is your elder and who is your junior, you know whose advice you should listen (you don't have to, but you know it is better for you), and to who you should/can give advice.

So, overall, the factors are: first belt, then date of arrival in the club, then experience, then age. And the benefits are: better cohesion, and faster / more efficient training.

Hope it helps!

  • Does the relationship get nuanced by people who are your elders in term of age?
    – Anon
    Feb 12, 2012 at 14:55
  • A bit, but it is a minor factor. The main factor is the belt, then the date of arrival, then experience, then age. There is a 7 years old kid that I see as my elder, and I learn a lot from him (mainly because his forms are perfect); added it to the answer Feb 12, 2012 at 15:30
  • Since you say "It means that during group practices, you have in front of you someone who is a bit better than you", I feel like your understanding of senpai/kohai is still a little one-sided. Do you have experience of both sides of the relationship?
    – Anon
    Feb 12, 2012 at 16:28
  • As the "elder" of some of the others, there is almost no benefit during the group practice from having juniors, apart from the motivation brought by the responsability of having someone watching you and learning from you. The main benefit from me is when giving advice or teaching on forms, as it allows me to understand them better. Teaching is a great way of learning. Feb 12, 2012 at 17:12
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    smile Sounds like there is a huge benefit to me.. I'd alter that "almost no benefit" :)
    – Anon
    Feb 12, 2012 at 17:34

The real and only benefit is having novices practicing with more experienced students, that's it.

Do not attempt to artificially create sempai-kohai relationships. Have everybody just practice.

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