I first came across this concept in the 1993 Michael Crichton film, Rising Sun, starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. In the film, we see the informal relationship between the sempai (senior), Connery and his kohai (junior), Snipes, as they try to solve a murder.
The sempai/kohai relationship is an integral part of Japanese culture, taught from an early age. The relationship is governed by the concept of ‘mibun‘. This is a Japanese system of rights and responsibilities. Within the system, everyone has a distinct role.
The relationship can be seen within Japanese business organisations and martial arts clubs. In the west, this relationship can be slightly confusing and often leads to misunderstandings in the dojo.
Another concept found in Japanese culture is that of ‘Tate Shakai (vertical society)‘. This represents a hierarchical structure that is strictly enforced in Japanese culture. A person’s place in the hierarchy is very important. It lasts a lifetime. The sempai and kohai relationship is strictly enforced in the hierarchy with each having distinct responsibilities.
Within the vertical society, the sempai is responsible for the development of the kohai. The sempai may be an older person, but this may not always be the case. They are typically more experienced or have a higher rank. The role of the sempai to offer the kohai guidance based on their experience.
The sempai supervises the kohai with advice and assistance on navigating the hierarchy. Although not an integral part of the relationship, friendship may also be offered by the sempai. Because of the vertical society, a sempai can also be a kohai.
Within the relationship, the kohai tends to be someone who is new or inexperienced. Based on the vertical society the kohai must always show respect loyalty and deference to the sempai. They have to defer to the sempai’s seniority and experience. Traditionally the kohai is responsible for attending to the needs of the sempai.
In the dojo, the sempai is not necessarily a black belt. They tend to be a person that started training at the dojo before the kohai. The sempai would understand the rules of the dojo. A fact that is sometimes lost in the west is that the relationship is not about Dan grades. As previously stated, the relationship goes beyond the dojo and is a part of the vertical society.
In Japan, even if the kohai attains a higher grade than the sempai, the vertical relationship remains in effect. It is not unknown for a kohai to be held back until his sempai achieves the grade before they do.
In the west, there is no historical context for the sempai/kohai relationship. We in the west do not fully understand the concept of mibun, which is a part of Japanese culture from birth.
In some dojos, because the relationship is not fully understood, this can lead to claims of bullying when the sempai doesn’t fully understand their roles. Sometimes the sempai treats the kohai as nothing more than a slave. Some kohai believe they have to participate in the relationship in order to progress.
With changes to society in both the east and west, some younger people are breaking with tradition and seeking to be more independent.
While it is good to stick to many of the traditions that come from Japan, it is important to take a pragmatic approach. Especially around practices and concepts that are intrinsic to Japanese culture. If used correctly, the sempai/kohai relationship can be beneficial in the dojo. Students with more experience can help students with less experience, arguably something that should be happening anyway.