Jan 16, 2008

Gratitude for my sempai

In Japanese, sempai is the word for senior students. Kohai is the word for junior students. For many people who have not grown up with the sempai-kohai system it can be difficult to understand and for the system to work, it must have the cooperation of both the kohai and the sempai.

The sempai as a senior student has many responsibilities: to act as an example of the teaching of the sensei, to be the source for etiquette questions, to teach the kohai the behavior and procedures in the preparation room, and any other teaching out of sight of the sensei. If the kohai misbehave or make mistakes, it is the sempai who takes responsibility and is the one that gets in trouble.

The responsibilities of the kohai are to respect the sempai, to be humble and defer to the sempai, to ask the questions before attempting anything he hasn’t done before and accept the teachings.

A hard concept for me was to accept someone younger than I as my sempai. As we enter the way of tea, everyone who has been before you is your sempai, no matter how young and how inexperienced. I had 15 years of experience studying with my sensei when I went to study in Kyoto. Though I did have sempai that were wise and more experienced, some of my sempai were 18 or 19, had studied for less than a year and they had been in the program for six months before I came. They were still my sempai and though I might have known how to conduct myself at home, they still had more experience in the protocol and how to conduct themselves in Japan than I did and had a lot to teach me.

The lesson I learned from this is that everyone has something to teach me, even those younger and less experienced. To all of my sempai in the way of tea, thank you. Thank you very much for showing me the way.

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