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Sempai vs Sensei

June 20, 2018

In the eyes of many people in many martial arts, a black belt means the ability or authority to teach. That seems logical; being black belt means you have a certain level of knowledge in a martial art, and you can’t teach what you don’t know, right? But, with the exception of Brazilian Jujitsu and the Filipino Martial Arts, people can be black belts (or equivalent) yet have little or no teaching ability. They could even be skilled practitioners of the art, that does not mean they are able to transmit to others the skills they themselves have acquired.

A conversation with one of my students helped me put into words something I had difficulty explaining before. This student was commenting about some people teaching, and said “They are more like sempai than sensei”. And with that everything fell into place.

Let me explain the Japanese terms first.

Sempai (先輩) is what you call the senior students in class. They have been around a while, they know what is going on, and they can give you pointers on what you need to do in order to get better, or to suck less. Their general job is to assist the sensei in running the class, whether in admin, management or helping juniors along by coaching in techniques.

Sensei (先生) is the term for teacher. It literally means “one who is born before”. Like the Chinese equivalent of Shifu (师父) it carries the idea of one who takes responsibility for the student. That, by the way, is why the Chinese hesitate to use the term Shifu on young people. The title literally means “teacher-father” and that is kind of weird to use on those who have not yet made their mark on the world or accumulated enough life experience yet. How effective can a young guy be at fathering anyone?

The difference between the two

The Sempai knows the syllabus. The Sensei looks at the student and thinks in terms of what the student needs, not just what the Sensei wants to teach. Don Roley, in one of his blog posts, described sensei who suggest (in the typical Japanese fashion) that a foreign student study practices such as the tea ceremony to deepen their understanding of the culture behind the martial art they are training in.

In other words, Sensei think big picture. That takes maturity, experience and a broad base of learning. Sempai, on the other hand, can get away with just following a sensei, or the official syllabus of their martial art organization or the like.

How the two types think

Take for example, a student who is thinking of extending his polytechnic course by half a year so that his modules will be more spread out, his studies will be less heavy and he can spend more time turning up for classes and self-training. Sempai may just think “yeah, this kid ought to be as dedicated to this martial art as I am!”, never mind that the Sempai are working adults with enough money to finance their own life decisions, while the student is still just a schooling kid and his parents are paying for his expenses. A Sensei, on the other hand, thinks about whether the student’s parents can afford to pay for half a year more of studies, and whether that family can afford to have that student entering the workforce half a year later than originally planned. And whether the growth in martial arts skill will pay off in the long run for that student.

Or a student may mention wishing to quit a decently paying job and replacing it with teaching martial arts instead. Sempai might tell him “It’s easy, you just need to have X number of students, paying $Y per month and that is a decent living right there! We can even let you get some experience in teaching first, by teaching at our classes”. A Sensei, on the other hand, will talk to that student about how feasible it is to find X number of students paying $Y per session, describe what stage of the business cycle a particular art is at in the country, and point out how successful martial arts schools actually meet overheads and pay their teachers. That way the student can intelligently decide if that is the kind of path he/she actually ought to take if the family is counting on him/her being a breadwinner.

Yes, I wasn’t kidding about the broad base of knowledge bit.

Sempai can look at pressure-testing, think it is a great idea, and go pedal to the floor on students who aren’t ready. Their logic? “Hey, it was great, it was beneficial for me, I learned so much from it. Let’s make everyone go through it!” Sensei look at each student and try to gauge the readiness of the student. And they are always calibrating the pressure levels for every student individually, so that the student may freak out but will not melt down.

Both sempai and sensei know how to game the system of the martial arts organization they are in. Sempai will think in terms of what they can get away with and what they can achieve. Sensei will think in terms of what is in the best interests of all parties concerned, the students, the organization, and even the martial art as a whole.

Sensei is a heavy responsibility

Because being a Sensei is a burden, and teaching is an entirely different matter from just training in a martial art and getting better at it, I cannot tell black belts that they ought to teach. Helping their teacher cover a class or two while the teacher is on holiday or unwell is fine, but taking on a long term commitment to teach is very different. And if your teacher has not taught you how to teach, you will have to spend time learning how to. A very different ball game entirely.

And depending your own innate talent and your life experiences, you may be at best Sempai as a teacher, not Sensei. That can’t really be helped, but just bear in mind your limitations. Work closely with people you know to be Sensei at heart, and you will find that you cause less problems than if you assume a dan-rank means you know how to teach or what to do.

Don Roley wrote this:

I hear people say that teaching helps your improvement but I firmly believe that it is a lie we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better about our lack of progress. Maybe I can vocalize the dynamics of something better since I have been teaching, but one of my teachers was quite vocal that true understanding of budo comes from the body and not the thought process. Learning is a sort of osmosis that you pick up through long hours of practice, the practice as described above. It is not thinking about it, being able to say how you do things- it is about doing it so that you no longer know how you are doing it anymore than a centipede can describe how he keeps his feet in order while walking.  Having a little old Asian man shake his head sadly and tell you to do something differently is thousands of times better than showing someone how to do it. (emphasis mine)

Don Roley described in that blog post what kind of practice leads to results. If you don’t have enough of that kind of practice, teaching others is not going to help you improve in anything else other than talking. And if I wanted to do talking rather than Budo I would have joined Toastmasters instead.


So this is an explanation of the big picture behind teaching. It is not specific to the Bujinkan per se, and can be applied to many other arts and fields of study too. If you are meant to be a teacher, this will help you know what you are getting yourself into. And if you are a student (aren’t we all supposed to be students?) this will help you look at the people who instruct you, understand the role they can play in your life and be able to respond to them accordingly.

Ok, enough talk from me for now. See you at training!

Junjie 俊傑
Bujinkan Ninjutsu

From → bujinkan

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