On Being a Sempai

by Sensei Brent H. Baker

Whenever I interview a potential new student, I always mention the two main rules of karate: “Karate is only for defense” and “Students are not permitted to teach karate without proper supervision from a black belt instructor.” Over the years, there are a few questions that always seem to come up. One of them is: “What if I get in a fight, but I don’t use karate?” This is an interesting question because it is asked so often. To answer it, let’s take a look at what karate is about.

“Karate is a way of life.” This sentence has been repeated by so many karate teachers, that you couldn’t count them all. It means that the lessons you learn in karate can affect your life outside of the dojo. Certainly, the exercise that you get from class can help keep you healthy. And the same effort that you put into learning a kata, or pushing that Shiko Dachi just a little lower, can make you a better student or employee. And the courtesy and respect that we practice in the dojo can even improve the way you interact with the people around you, helping to build stronger, healthier relationships – both personal and professional.

The thing that we need to remember, though, is that we don’t stop being karateka (karate students) when class ends. “Karateka” becomes part of who you are, in the same way that you don’t stop being a student or employee when you come home from school or work. Nor do you stop being a son or daughter when you grow up and leave home. These are all significant parts of who we are as individuals, and who we choose to become as we continue to grow and develop. Sometimes it’s good to think about what type of person we would like to be, and how we plan to become that person.

What does a white belt mean to you? What about a green belt? Or a brown belt? Black belt? Odds are, we associate being a higher rank with having more knowledge, more ability, and more authority. Looking forward from the beginning levels, higher-level belts seem to bring more opportunities and more privileges. Reaching those levels, however, also brings something else: more responsibility.

Look at a class sometime: white belts in the back, purple belts ahead of them, then yellow belts, and so on. Now watch the students. During Kihon (basics), the white belts will be watching the people in front of them – purple and yellow belts – and doing what they do. As the class moves on to Kihonido (basics with walking in stance), the purple and yellow belts will now be watching the orange and blue belts. As we get into more complex material, students will look to the ranks above them for guidance. In this way, everyone in the dojo becomes a Sempai, a role model for the ranks behind them.

When do you choose to become a role model? You don’t. Unfair as it may seem, putting on a belt that is higher than someone else’s, or even just being older than some of the other students in class, makes you a role model whether you want to be one or not. You can’t choose to be a role model – other people will make that choice for you, by making you one – you can only choose what type of role model you want to be: a positive one or a negative one.

Stop for a minute and think about the people you train with. You have both Sempai (people who are higher in rank than you) and Kohai (people who are lower in rank than you). Who are the people that you look up to? Who are the people that are looking up to you? Now step outside the dojo. Are there people outside the dojo that you look up to, or that look up to you? Of course there are. Remember, karate is a way of life; the things that we learn in karate affect the rest of our lives.

So let’s go back to the first question. “What if I get in a fight, but I don’t use karate?” The real question here is, “Am I still responsible for setting a good example, even when I’m outside the dojo?” My answer is “Yes.” It’s not always easy to do the right thing, to be a good role model, and we all make mistakes from time to time. That’s why the Dojo Creed begins with “To Strive for the Perfection of Character” instead of “To Have a Perfect Character.” None of us are perfect, but we can all strive to be the best people we can be; and we can all help one another along the way. And that, to me, is what being part of a dojo is all about.

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