Our Master's Voice

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Paul Brant 2nd Dan IJKA

While not an article about a particular Shotokan karate training issue, it does explain the technicalities of hierarchy within Japanese culture and, thereby warrants inclusion.

Our Master’s Voice (Kato Shihan IJKA World Chief Instructor)

I will do my best to relay to you the strong feelings of our Chief Instructor Kato Shihan, with respect to hierarchy and etiquette in the IJKA.
Kato Shihan has asked of our instructors why they rei to the young Japanese instructors as they enter the dojo and, ignore their own senior instructors? Is it the colour of their skin? Senior instructors, why do you rei to these instructors, they are your kohai? They should rei to you, you are Sensei!

Hierarchy as a Part of Japanese Culture

Hierarchy is a significant part of Japanese culture. This structure is reflected everywhere in Japanese life. How hierarchy is formed depends mainly on seniority, social roles and gender.

From high school age, older ones are called "Sempai" (meaning senior person) and younger ones are called "Kohai" (meaning junior person). These names, distinguishing the age differences, continue for life. However, as in the family, younger ones call their elders "Sempai", although older ones call younger ones by their names when they address individuals directly. These kinds of interactions create tremendous power dynamics. If "Kohai" do not obey older people, they often get punished and bullied. "Sempai" is represented as the strong and "Kohai" is represented as the weak. Students learn these kinds of dynamics through their school activities such as sports clubs or many other art clubs. This structure creates tremendous pressure and strictness as to how to exist in a hierarchy.

Hierarchy as a Part of Karate Culture

Hierarchy is also a significant part of Karate culture. The structure is reflected everywhere both in and outside the dojo. How the hierarchy is formed depends mainly on seniority but in western countries are we loosing track of culture we were trying to follow from the 1960’s?

We learn from being a young student how to rei to show respect and the meanings of the Japanese terms for the hierarchy, Shihan, Sensei, Sempai and Kohai.

Shihan (meaning master), a title attributed normally to an 8th Dan Black Belt or Chief Instructor of an association. “Shi” means teacher or master and “Han” means an example, model or pattern.

Sensei (meaning teacher), “Sen” meaning ahead or precede and “Sei” meaning life.

Sempai (meaning senior student), “Sen” meaning precede and  “Pai” means a group of people. This title is usually reserved for first and second dans. If a lower grade is teaching, they should be addressed by the class as Sempai. A junior dan grade may address a senior dan grade (within two grades) as Sempai, unless they are teaching then they should be referred to as Sensei. The Sempai should oversee their Sensei’s wishes as how the class should be run, they act as a go between. It is their duty to correct etiquette, manner and behaviour, to remind the class at the earliest opportunity.

There are times where an individual may overtake another by grade, but has not trained as long. Consideration should be given here by the new sempai towards their fellow karateka. Even if they are the same grade the first is sempai. You never catch up.

Kohai (meaning junior student), “Ko” means behind and “Hai” the same as “Pai” above. This usually refers to Brown belts and below in the dojo

Hierarchy in the IJKA

The practice of a Japanese martial art begins and ends with etiquette.
Within the Japanese culture respect is paramount for its function, similar to a military force’s seniority being marked by some distinction to display rank.
Also the higher the rank and the length of service, gains its rewards and privileges. Karate is no different.

From the absolute white belt to the black belt turning white there is an order. Seniors have earned their respect by dedication to their art over the years of service. In the early days of Karate in the west there were few dan grades, the majority were Shodan anything higher was unusual. All high grades came from Japan and I think it was from here that our respect came for our Japanese teachers.

What Kato Shihan was saying to us is that now there are many westerners with thirty years plus experience in karate. These Karateka deserve our deepest respect far more so than a young Japanese instructor fresh from instructor school.

Kato Shihan has also explained to our young Japanese instructors that there are many western fifth, sixth and seventh dans that should be treated in the same manner as a Japanese Sensei, the colour of the skin makes no difference.

In the west we sometimes forget how many years of dedicated training our own instructors have given to their art.

Please give it some thought.