Many years ago, Ichikawa Sensei was asked to define the proper spirit of a Sempai. Almost without a pause, he answered with a single phrase: “Shinken shobu” – which translates as “to the death” or “fight to the death”. As ambiguous as this reply would sound in other cultures, the meaning is straightforward in the context of the Budo spirit. Shinken shobu is the spirit of absolute dedication to the art, the sense of discipline and effort. In the case of a Sempai it also requires helping others.
The formal dojo structure traditionally requires the Sempai-Kohai system. The term “Sempai” translates as senior student, but it can also be defined as an honour, duty, and good fortune.
A Sempai is not selected only on the basis of enrolment in class, but also, according to dedication, respect and devotion to training, as well as the desire to help others improve, and support the dojo. It is an obvious honor to be selected, but with it comes great responsibility. Sempai’s training requires a higher degree of proficiency and understanding of technique and correct attitude, as well as observance of proper etiquette, in and out of the dojo. It is the closest thing as possible as training as an Uchi-Deshi.
Few students are selected, but those who accept the challenge and are able to measure up to the requirements of attitude, spirit and technique will go on to become Fukushidoin (assistant instructors) and later shidoin (instructor). As Sempai, they are the first to arrive, the last to leave, lead the warm-ups prior to the arrival of the teacher, and warm the class for the bow for Sensei or any honourable visitors. They also pay close attention to the junior student’s performance and are glad to correct any mistakes, in technique and attitude, although never in a rude manner.
A Sempai directs the cleaning of the dojo, is attentive to the needs of the Sensei and takes time to advise the Kohai about the proper ways and proper techniques, according to the teacher’s advise. To lead one day, we first must learn to serve. Most importantly, Sempai are the backbones of the dojo, but also become its representative outside its walls. What they allow themselves to do will reflect on the honour of the art they learn and the dojo they attend. The seal that appears in their cards and diplomas that identifies them as Sempai does not only add to the honour of their rank, but speaks loudly of their strength and faithfulness.
In schools that teach Kakutogi, this definition applies only loosely. Sadly, those schools allow arrogance and bad manners, and tolerate other poor attitudes that contradict the ethics taught by our teachers. Such is not our policy.
“Those who mingle with thieves knowingly, condone theft. Even if they never join their wrong doing, they are not any less guilty.” say the old scrolls, and that applies to our sense of honor.
To seek a better life by correcting our ways is the goal of every true Budoka. It must be three times more of a priority to a Sempai, not something to do tomorrow, but a decision to take today. Fate is the excuse of cowards incapable of facing themselves and the circumstances adequately.
Helping to teach and advising the Kohai is far from an easy task. Many are unwilling to listen. Some claim they only need a fraction of your teaching because they already know “the right way”. Not coincidentally, those are the ones with deeper difficulties. The greater the arrogance (i.e. deaf ears) the lesser the substance (i.e. values), and the harder the work. But, on the other hand, the greater the satisfaction when the spirit improves.
In old times, to be an Uchi-Deshi was a great honour. The best teachers were and are created in those circumstances. To be a Sempai is very close to it, with the added difficulties of the wrong enticements that certain environments may provide, but even in such circumstances our battle becomes the more worthy because it is much harder. A few men and very few women have threaded this path, and with satisfaction we welcome them as part of our Rengokai. The challenge remains for those with enough spirit to accept it.
The conditions are simple: decency, dedication perseverance, humility and honour, and the courage to remain in them, at any cost. Hence the right definition of the proper spirit of the Sempai.