Of high importance when it comes to mentoring others within Japanese society, is the role of the Senpai to Kohai relationship. This being a system of initiation that parallels within the Art of Karate. Senpai are seen as those who have more experience, therefore acting as a role model to prevent Kohai or juniors from making unnecessary mistakes whilst guiding and helping them along to improve standards. The opening Kanji character as in Sen, is the same as that of Sensei, meaning preceding, before or ahead. When one initially goes out to experience the old Dojo training of Japan or Okinawa, they will tactfully be guided along by Senpai and others on the correct protocols so as not to be out of place or to offend. Even today as a Senpai myself and after many years, I still at times find myself being corrected or advised by my Senpai also. Whereby within a group or Dojo of worth, the Senpai are just as important to a student’s maturity as the Sensei themselves. Remember, it is better to be guided by, told off, or advised by Senpai, than scolded by Sensei. 

As a serious Karate Ka, the first thing that one needs to do when understanding the role of a Senpai, is dismiss any thoughts of this being a shodan or brown belt of lower level that is often seen in the West. Only yesterday evening I watched a video clip of a group of Karate Ka visiting Morio Higaonna Sensei’s Dojo in Makishi, these of which were training with dedication and seriousness. Higaonna Sensei though now being a little older, was watching the training from his chair in the corner of his Dojo, a right that he has earned for sure. Now, apart from the Higaonna Sensei making the odd correction or giving words of advice. The trainees were being instructed by the Senpai of the Dojo, as in Kuramoto, Uehara and Yonesato Sensei’s. All of which have a wealth of experience behind them. This being the way of both Senaha Sensei’s Dojo also, and many other of the traditional old Dojo on Okinawa follow this way too. Senaha Sensei himself was the Dojo Senpai of Meitoku Yagi Sensei. 

As a Senpai of the Ryusyokai, Paul Babladeis Sensei has over 50 years of experience in following the way of Karate, being a Senpai who is both encouraging and an inspiration to many of us. Being one who always leads from the front and by example. I remember a Gashuku in Tomigushuku, Okinawa, ten years or so ago, where he would head the lines of Karate Ka and train just as hard, if not harder than us all when in reality he did not really need to. I did smile to myself on occasions when Senaha Sensei would mention to him about taking it easy and going around correcting others, but he’d say that he was fine and he’d just carry on training, nonetheless. In his interview with James East Sensei on the Path, in closing Paul Senpai/Sensei is asked if had any advice for Karate Ka out there. His answer was pure magic and along the lines of this… “Avoid conversations on the internet when it comes to Karate, as it’s amazing how many people can have an opinion and feel they know so much. They often tear others down, including some really accomplished Karate Ka, when they have no right or the experience to criticize them at all.”

Receiving advice from a reputable Senpai can at times be invaluable to ones development and understanding. As a note, I could literally write a book on the guidance that I have received from James East Sensei over the years, one day I may actually do so. In 2019 Steve Lyons Sensei was in England accompanying Senaha Sensei, along with his wife Nancy and James. After one of Sensei’s training sessions Steve Senpai pulled me to one side and said to me, “Glyn have you watched yourself do Kata lately?” Of which he then proceeded to explain to me that my understanding of timing and speeds within Kata was way off. He then explained a deeper understanding of the Okinawan way of using slowness and feeling, then in contrast the use of sharp explosive techniques. This was a lesson that was thank fully received and something that has really helped me gain a deeper understanding of Kata. So of course I am deeply greatful.

Do not ever feel as though you can only learn from the Sensei of a Dojo, as in a Dojo or group of worth, you will learn many lessons from the seniors or Dojo Senpai too.