The responsibility of sempai

The other week, a green belt in aikido asked me a simple question that I have been unable to shake. It had nothing to do with technique or history; that kind of question is easy. Either I know the answer, or I can find it out from someone who does.

No, this question had to do with an aspect of my behavior in each class. I don't think he intended to confront me or even subtly rebuke me (or anyone else, for I'm not the only one guilty of it). He was just curious. But it's continued to gnaw at me. And after reading Dave Lowry's "In the Dojo", certain passages managed to shine an even brighter light on the subject.

You see, as I've mentioned before, our dojo, compared to most, is a relatively relaxed one. The rigors of obeisance to strict codes of conduct within the dojo walls have always come second to the cultivation of an atmosphere of fellowship and mutual benefit, of genuine warmth and camaraderie. Why? I can't say for certain; the dojo is almost as old as I am, and the organization which spawned is older still. But I think I can make an educated guess.

It's no secret that the American mindset has often proven incapable of assimilating Japanese traditions of respect, reverence and hierarchy without using them as an excuse to indulge in authoritarian behavior, not just for the sensei of a given dojo but for anyone in possession of a reasonably high rank. In such circumstances, progress is stymied, the mood oppressive, and egos run rampant. While not every dojo who adheres to traditional reishiki will suffer from such lamentable attitudes, but it's been known to happen.

I honestly believe our dojo simply desires to avoid allowing our egos to get the better of us. Whether or not anyone agrees with the decision to consciously allow a few details of etiquette to slide, Windsong has  created a wonderful environment, full of fine friends and amazing technique, and most of all one that encourages growth and progress, both in the individual and in the art itself.

All of that being said, I'm beginning to suspect I've relaxed a little too much over the years.

The green belt's questions was, simply put, why don't I do ukemi with everyone else?

You see, I've developed a habit of coming to class and getting dressed on my own time table, allowing the junior ranks to warm up while I chat or just sit on my butt (it is very early in the morning, after all). Additionally, I've been sitting out the usual rounds of ukemi or any other compulsory drills, and not jumping in to actually participate until the lesson begins. And while I don't say this as an excuse, I'm not the only one.

Now, as I'm not privy to all of those aforementioned Japanese traditions since this is the only dojo in which I've ever trained, I don't know for certain whether this sort of behavior is at all natural or even expected for a senior class member or the one teaching and running the class. Maybe once you've been around long enough, and achieved a certain rank, you don't really need to go through the usual ukemi and drills? I have at least, on occasion, taken to wandering the mat, checking on the junior ranks progress with ukemi, etc. and offering constructive pointers whenever necessary.

But still. My conscience is nagging me.

In Mr. Lowry's book, he begins by describing the make-up of the dojo itself, beginning with the four walls or "seats" and their significance: shimoza (the entrance), the kamiza (the well opposite, usually containing a shrine or calligraphy), joseki (the wall to the right where the senior grades gather) and shimoseki (the left side, where the junior grades gather).

In discussing the differences between joseki and shimoseki in particular, he brings up certain points that have struck a rather resonant chord with me:

"To think of the space [joseki] as an 'Old Boy's Club,' however, would be a mistake. On the joseki side of the dojo there must be an intensity and a soberness of practice that might intimidate more junior members. There will, if the dojo is a good one, also be a serious sense of obligation and commitment on the part of the seniors to members who are not as advanced."

He goes on to emphasize that such a commitment lies mainly in the realization that "the future of their art depends upon successive generations taking it up and perfecting it and carrying it on."

He continues:

'The joseki side of the dojo is always under scrutiny from the shimoseki. Guided by their art's high standards of rectitude, juniors watch and evaluate their seniors. Are the seniors' actions and lifestyles in accordance with the ideals of the art? Do the seniors demand more of the juniors than the seniors themselves can do? Seniors can sometimes believe their foibles are invisible to newer students. The truth is that beginners can be perceptive."

Indeed. So I have a lot to think about.

While I was taught the many facets of the art itself over the course of my training, what little I have learned about being a teacher has come through observation or just plain trial and error. But as I move more and more into the role of a teacher and a leader, I think I need to seriously reevaluate the standards I hold for myself as well as those I hold for the students of my sensei's dojo, to reevaluate the example that I set. I owe it to the students who allow me to teach them, and I owe it to my sensei who allows me to teach them (because in truth they are his pupils, not mine). 


  1. Internalizing ukemi is a game of reptition-- when you are new to training one of the early goals should be to get in around a thousand reps of each falling condidtion-- folks who do this (injury free) build a very soild foundation for progress in the art-- once your initial thousand are done you enter a different phase and now you are in a maturing process -- a daily dose is still reccomeded for the first several years of training-- once you have done a consistant form of ukemi for a decade or so (read many many thousands of reps here) it becomes less important to do it daily -- really at that point you just need enough for the reflexes to stay fresh -- since it is a trained set of reflexes it does need to have a little dose of it to keep it working for you but you are in a whole different phase with respect to repititions. by the time ukemi has reached full maturation, a little goes along way.

  2. I'm glad you're thinking about it!

    I've had to train at a few different dojos over the last few months because of work, and really notice how the interaction of sempai influence so many things.

    It also looks like it's a hard thing to change, and any changes need to come from the top and filter down.

  3. I think I somewhat suspected that was the case regarding uke, but I just didn't know how to verbalize it. Still, why do I feel guilty? I definitely don't want to send the wrong message ("I'm too good for all that, so I'm going to sit over here on my butt while you peons work like dogs...")

    That, and I don't want to waste valuable training time standing around. At the very least, I suppose, I ought to be helping, teaching, perhaps throwing in new ukemi drills once in a while (Scott Weaver is good about that).

  4. When I lived in Japan, he dojo elders sat at the edge of the dojo, smoked cigarettes and never did ukemi. When they got thrown they panicked and took pained falls.

    I am guilty too. For me it boils down to laziness. Ukemi is exercise. Exercise makes me sweaty.

    Now I try to make sure I take more ukemi than anyone else. It is dreadful exersise, but I need to burn off this belly.

  5. Ha! Yeah, I've got my own belly I need to burn off (I was overweight, too, when first started aikido when I was 19, and just doing the ukemi alone for a coupla months burned off about 10 pounds). =)


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