To put things in context, being a sensei means nothing if we do not acknowledge our senpai, that is my perspective anyway.
Jason, is my senpai. James is also my senpai, and although I’m sensei, they outrank me in Dan, in age and in years of training, particularly with Jason. Yet in class, I teach and they learn, they bow to me as they would to any sensei. I make sure the reverence is reciprocated.
It doesn’t matter that in future if I rise and outrank them in grade, in age and in years of training they outrank me. When I was a white belt, Jason is already holding a coloured belt, he contributed in ways big and small to me becoming who I am today. I cannot forget that and write off his goodwill.
Senpai ( 先辈 )
Loosely speaking, it means senior, elder or predecessor. To me I cannot erase the memories of those senpais that taught me, Soh, Uncle Tong, Alvin, Loh Tuck Yean (hope I got his name right!) and many others, who has showed me Aikido. Many of them has left training for good and might no longer be as proficient on the mat as they were some 20 years ago. Still they are senior to me in age, and every time I train or teach, part of what they taught me come alive in the moves.
While Harry sensei and many other Aikido teachers, taught me Aikido, sometimes it is our senpais who quietly egged us on, encouraged us, and helped us when we don’t get the technique right and yet still too timid to ask the sensei; our senpai will help us makes sense of the nitty gritty stuff. Without their care and contributions, we simply cannot get to our level of skill as quickly as we have done on our own. I have many, many big brothers and sisters in Aikido to thank and be eternally grateful for.
Not all Senpais are created equal
This is the spirit of hierarchy, we naturally align and bestowed respect and seniority to those seated to our right. Sometimes, our senpais might not have conducted themselves in best faith, others might push their weight around (pun intended) and strut their stuff on the mat simply because they literally outrank almost everyone on the mat, sans the sensei. They might also suck up to the sensei and put everyone more junior down, and treat peers like competitors for the sensei’s attention.
We scoff in contempt such outlandish and belligerent senpais, but think deeper, senpais are also human, and they have their own fallacy. I’ve long learned that anyone’s ‘supremacy’ on the mat, does not necessarily translate to a supremacy in life. People often make one part of their lives, such as being an Aikidoka fantastically awesome to make up for some shortfall in other areas of their lives. The best is we try to live a balances holistic lives. Bumping into these overbearing senpais, I did, of course, and I’ve long learned to give them a wide berth, akin oil and water.
This is just an honorific term, while there is usually one sensei, the sensei cannot become effective without a cadre of senpais. While the sensei might teach and pass down techniques and knowledge, the senpais are the one who help distill these to the more junior ones. Senpais help spread the culture and excellence further and wider.
So the relationship between a sensei and senpai is very much symbiotic. A sensei can only do so much alone, but along with a group of senpais, the sensei can do much more, and show that the school can be more than just one person.
My message to my fellow students and Aikidokas is, never forget your senpais as you progress, and advance in rank senior than them. Sometimes, our senpais might no longer be as fluid and skilled as us, but we still need to show them the due respect. Rank aside, please remember that they were here before us, and without their guidance and support, we will not get where we are, the school will not exist, no Aikido will continue.
So if you want to show that you have now become better than your senpai, all you did was limit yourself from becoming better than you are.