The younger man looks over the pool tables in the back, first at a well-dressed man putting the balls away rather efficiently. The older shakes his head and says, “No. He’s not here for the money.” The younger then looks to the next table and a man dressed very casual, if not a little dingy. He’s leaning against the table as if waiting, holding a house cue. Again the older man shakes his head, “He’s hustling, waiting on his next mark.” The young man looks to the third table. The guy there is dressed nice, shooting decent pool as he’s laughing and flirting with the three ladies nearby. “That’s the one,” the younger man announces. “Why,” asks the older. “He’s got money he’s willing to spend, but he’s distracted by the ladies. And to show off he’ll bet more than he should.” The older man nods as they approach the third table. “Very good. That’s our mark. Let’s make some money.”
To get my geek on for a moment – from the ever wise Yoda: “Always two there are, a master and an apprentice.”
In Japan when a younger and older man are together it is common to expect they are kohai and senpai, or the junior and senior. This relationship is similar to a mentorship, but it’s not exactly the same. The senpai/kohai relationship has been a core of Japanese culture for centuries, and is in every aspect of their lives, business, schooling, and the martial arts. Everyone is connected to someone else, they look out for each other, and by doing so, look out for themselves. It’s been said Japan is the most co-dependent culture in the world. Japan has quickly become a world power in business and education, and the senpai/kohai relationship is a strong part of that.
In essence, the instructor in a dojo is senpai (senior) to everyone in the dojo, but not completely. One person can only do so much. An instructor will mentor a few people in the dojo, higher ranks, who in turn mentor others, who mentor others, who mentor others. In most schools, martial arts or otherwise, there’s a teacher and the students. It’s one against many. In a proper dojo, like ours, it’s one with many – and that unity not only makes the dojo stronger, it makes all those involved better, faster.
I’ve had several senpai over the years I’ve training in martial arts, and in aikido specifically. At present I have four that help guide me. Some are general mentors guiding me in all aspects of aikido, and some are more focused on tasks, like dojo management. In turn, I mentor four students primarily, partially mentor three more, and I keep a more attentive eye on a few others. They, in turn, hopefully have kohai of their own to help along, passing down what they’ve been taught and what they’ve learned. Some of you are wondering, are you being mentored? Are you mentoring? It’s not always obvious.
My first experience with the senpai/kohai relationship in aikido was anything but subtle. I had just gotten my 6th kyu a few weeks before, and was bowing off the mat after a regular class. A rather large senior student walked up to me and grabbed my arm, dragging me back out onto the mat without a word. He called out shomenuchi ikkyo and I promptly got a chop to the forehead. Now, even though we have both reached the same rank and a decade has passed, when we meet at seminars he still does much the same to me as he did then. Other times the mentor-ship is much, much more subtle.
If you’ve been around a while, especially if you have rank, you should be looking to the well-being of the newer people under you. Conversely, someone above you should be helping to guide you along as well. You’ll know you have a senpai when they grab your arm and take your training solidly in their hands. Or when you’ve been doing an exercise in class for 15 minutes and the instructor announces it was more for you than anyone else. Is there someone who’s been there to help you along? If not, pick one. Find a student you admire and ask them after class if they’ll give you a hand and forge that connection yourself. Just keep in mind that instructors have a lot on their plates and usually have a few people they’re tending to already. If you’re lower rank, get connected and make that link with a senpai. If you’re a higher rank, it’s time to get your senpai on.
We’re all far stronger and better together than we ever are alone.