When we join any martial arts, especially Japanese martial arts, there will always be a strict hierarchy, a kind of pecking order. The junior belts will always know the more senior ones as “先輩” .
At my level, I have 先輩 and I am also a 先輩 to my junior belts. It took me a while to come to this reality, and I can still remember a couple of years back, I was taken aback when a junior belt started addressing me as 先輩, I told the junior belt to just call me by my name.
Well, it cannot be helped I guess? I am now a 先輩, like it or not.
Who are Senpais? 先輩
Simply speaking, they are senior practitioners of a specific martial arts. Even a person who happens to join the dojo a day earlier than you, is a 先輩 to you.
先輩 helps the sensei with the more mundane, boring stuff of administration, guiding the junior belts, cleaning and maintenance of the dojo. Without a decent cadre of 先輩, a dojo cannot operate smoothly. In other words, think of 先輩 as a sort of ‘middle management’ in corporate speak.
When 先輩 has an opinion
We all know who 先輩 are. I am one myself. And of course 先輩 are also human, we have our aspirations, opinions and of course, disagreements, with our sensei.
Personally for me, my direction is straight: align to my sensei; which is often easier said than done, as our sensei is also human, have aspirations and opinions, and of course have disagreements with us!
When 先輩 criticizes
Leave the critique to the sensei. I see 先輩 as a guide, helping the more junior, less experienced students maneuver over more complex techniques, or even work around difficult characters in the class. Some 先輩, out of kindness, will try to teach or correct juniors, which often isn’t helpful, as it is the sensei’s job to teach, and the 先輩’s job is to guide.
Problem begins when a 先輩 pass a disparaging remarks, or scathing opinions about the sensei, or the junior belts. It can be confusing for a junior belt, not knowing who to follow.
Of course, my 2-cents worth is not to give a f**k. It is often a case of easier said than done. It is entirely understandable that some juniors take in the opinions of 先輩, since they are the opinion leaders, and junior belts will grab whatever advise that come along. Some junior belters will look up to a certain 先輩 and that can be bordering hero worshipping, which in my opinion, bad. The only person who matters in the dojo, in terms of tutelage, is the sensei, everyone else is student, 先輩 included.
This will come to an apex when the 先輩 openly disagrees with the sensei…
When 先輩 becomes a sensei
Problem also begins when 先輩 decides to take initiative and starts to become a sensei. What happens next is going to be purely economical. The 先輩 turned sensei will want students, so that he can be a sensei, and of course, earn money.
This will tear the foundations of the school apart, which cannot be helped. We are all humans and we want things for ourselves. When we become ‘good enough’ and we can pretty much do what our sensei do, why should we listen to our sensei? It makes more sense to become one!
Loyalty is pretty much just a word these days. Modern economics and consumerism has empowered individuals to strike out on their own. Everyone likes to be their own boss and make a living on their own. There is of course much freedom getting things done on your own. And why pay fees, when you can collect fees on your own? Be your own boss/sensei!
Martial arts is martial arts
Personally, martial arts for me, is martial arts. It is not a place to make money, and promote your ego. My sensei has worked hard to build an environment where we are all practising like a family, which is essentially what a 先輩 is, nothing more than a big brother or sister.
So as the ‘elder sibling’, I guide the more junior ones to understand the sensei, or at least try to! It is not a place to silently question my sensei. And being with Harry sensei for such a long time, it is also not a case where if I don’t like his style, I simply go to another dojo. It is again, not about going from this gym to that gym, because that gym as a better facilities. Martial arts isn’t about that.
And when my 先輩 says or do stupid things, I just choose to let it slide. It would be rude as a junior to critique my 先輩, the pecking order is there for a good reason, to maintain harmony. There is no need for me to say or do things to prove that I am smarter or better than my 先輩, or even my sensei. It is what it is, we are all good and proficient, at our own level.
Focus on the good
At the end of the day, we all go home after class, to our families and our lives. 先輩 and sensei are people and characters in our marital arts lives that helps us understand and develop coping strategies to manage relationships. You simply cannot wish away nasty 先輩 in the dojo, you still have to train with them, as complaining to sensei sometimes will not help. Pretty much like how complaining to our parents about our naughty siblings or cousins will not help.
So focus on the good, understand that there will always be a 先輩 where we go, even in work and in other endeavours, some of these seniors will help others will not, others have your best interest at heart, others hiding their own agendas. No matter what, as a student, my goal is to listen to my sensei, even when he is not saying anything.