Throughout your life as a student within Bushido Budo Kai you will come across, what appear to be, some weird and wonderful ways. Many of these you may not understand, but this brief explanation may help you establish what questions you need to ask in order to gain a greater understanding. Your teachers and fellow students are there to help you, as you will be there to help the next new student to enter the organisation.
Budo is a general term to describe Japanese Martial Arts, it means 'Fighting Ways'. The most well known arts included under this banner are Judo, Ju-Jitsu Karate, Aikido and Kendo, although there are many others. Each has its roots deeply set in the Japanese history of the Samurai, and many traditions and customs that are performed today reflect this.
One who trains in any of these arts is regarded as a Budoka, but specifically a student may be referred to as Deshi. The Japanese characters or Kanji that illustrate this are one’s that read 'younger brother'. If you specifically practice Judo or Karate then you would be a Judoka or Karateka.
Professor Jigoro Kano studied and mastered the techniques of ju-jitsu from which he developed the principles of judo. In 1882 he founded the Kodokan in Tokyo which has become the world centre of judo.
The pursuit and practice of judo provides a safe but vigorous form of physical combat in a controlled environment which develops character and self confidence together with technical competence, physical fitness and self discipline and forms the basis of an effective means of self defence.
Japanese terminology and etiquette have been retained to give judo much of its unique character and style.
Judo, 'The Gentle Way', was first founded by Professor Jigoro Kano in 1882 and is now practiced worldwide both as a traditional Martial Art and an Olympic Sport. It was first formulated from the more primitive art of Ju-Jitsu, using some of the best techniques, ignoring some of the more dangerous and new ones being created. Professor Kano felt that only techniques where the energy of one’s opponent is used to defeat his or her own aggression should be incorporated. To promote his new art he founded the now infamous Kodokan Institute.
Kano believed that his new philosophy was a 'way of life' as opposed to just a martial art and adopted strict ethics to the system. Both instructors and students alike were expected to set a good example of character and conduct in general day to day life, as well as in the Dojo.
It was Kano who initially authorized a ten level grading system into Judo but he did not adopt the colour system we see today. In the Kodokan, only Black and White belts existed! Coloured belts were introduced much later on, with this system now shared, although not necessarily exactly, with other Budo arts.
The basic system suggests that beginners wear a white belt and as knowledge increases they progress through yellow, orange, green, blue, and brown. These are referred to as Kyu Grades, and the students who wear them as Mudansha meaning 'Those without Dan'. Some other arts and organisations vary the number of colours worn at Kyu level.
In more recent years, other variations have been created for younger students, including a Mon or 'badge' system. This may be, for very young (under 8 years), an unlimited number of mon being awarded for effort until they are mature enough to appreciate the coloured belts system. For those under 16 years old each Kyu grade may be broken down with three mon in between each colour. This helps in rewarding small improvements in ability.
Once a student has progressed through Brown belt they then qualify for Black, the elusive Dan grade. This signifies that they have completed their initial studies and are now sufficiently prepared to begin their learning.
1st Dan through to 5th Dan, completes the 10 level ranking system first created by Kano. The next level, 6th Dan, suggests that the Budoka has achieved Master status and it is typical that from here on, grades are issued based upon their service to the Budo arts.
Historically Martial Arts were practiced anywhere that provided space, but for arts such as Judo, because of the requirement for matting a place indoors was more suitable.
The word Dojo comes from Do meaning 'the way' and Jo meaning 'place, in other words 'a place where the Way is studied'. Many rules apply to people who enter the Dojo as it should be conducive to study, quiet and free from distraction. Many of the rules we apply to our Dojo’s follow this principle as well as considering the safety of those present.
The threshold of our Dojo is, if you like, where West meets East, and on entering much of the etiquette of the Eastern or Oriental world can be observed. Bowing in the Western world is often considered odd but is in part the equivalent of a handshake, it is a greeting! Bows however are also a mark of respect and acceptance to people, places and objects.
At the door, whether entering or leaving, one should bow (Rei) inwards. This is a sign that you accept and respect this place as somewhere to train. At the edge of the mat, or tatami, you should rei acceptance of this as an area on which you will practice, and similarly when you leave each area a bow of thanks is given.
On entering the training area it is both traditional and respectful to ask the permission of the highest ranking person present for permission.
The beginning of a training session starts with a bowing ceremony, where each of the students line up facing the class Sensei and other Dan grades. Later we will discuss how we line up, but for now let us explain why.
This ceremony is to demonstrate mutual respect and acceptance of both teacher and student. Only once this has been carried out can the class begin. The class ends once more with a bow (Rei) this time giving thanks. For teachers thanking the students for accepting their teachings and for the students to thank the teachers for passing on their knowledge.
When you begin training with a partner it is also customary to rei, accepting each other and showing respect. Similarly, when you have finished a rei of thanks is given to each other.
In the Dojo there are many rules to abide by and much etiquette to consider, but as discussed it all begins from typical Japanese ways. Humbleness is one characteristic we have already mentioned, as is respect, and certain rules therefore apply as to who sits where, particularly during bowing ceremonies. To explain this further, we should understand the typical layout of a Dojo. However, we must also understand that this is an ideal, and the design of a building or room may dictate otherwise.
The side of the Dojo into which you enter is known as Shimoza or 'lower seat'. The wall directly opposite is known as Shomen or Kamiza, meaning 'upper seat'. This traditionally is a raised, stage like area. and may display some form of shrine, portrait or image known as a kamidana. To the right, as you look toward Kamiza is Joseki, and to the left shimoseki. The area in the middle is known as Embujo, which loosely could be translated as 'theatre' or 'the place for demonstration'.
Shimoseki is where Kyu graded or Mudansha students should line up, while Joseki is where Senior students would sit, typically Dan grades, along with Sensei.
The order in which people line up is simple in as much as the lower grade always sits to the left. Beyond grade, priority is given to experience, age and sex in that order. Within many Dojos females sat ahead of males who may have had many years more experience but wore the same grade. This may have been an over-simplification of the order perhaps derived from younger Budoka where, because of the Mon system, age and experience was of little significance.
There are of course situations, perhaps as a guest at an unfamiliar Dojo, where at first sight it is not possible to see where one should sit. In this case, unless invited to re-position him or herself, then a typical Japanese approach would be to assume a humble position at the far left; lowest in the pecking order! Again, taking the Oriental approach, the other Budoka should, if they are aware of the visitor's position, step to the guest’s left hand side, thus promoting them further along the line.
So who or what is Sensei? Literally the word Sensei means teacher or instructor and therefore can be defined as a person who is qualified sufficiently to teach. He or she should feel that they have progressed sufficiently along 'The Way' that they are able to pass on some of what they have learned.
A person who has reached Dan grade status should have sufficient knowledge to teach but may not in fact carry the required attributes to do so. For example a person who has attained a Dan grade based upon his or her abilities in Shiai (contest), may be weaker in their ability to communicate skills to other Budoka and thus may not be regarded as Sensei.
Through the passing of time and with an element of 'Chinese (or perhaps Japanese) whispers' the term Sensei seems to have become, in some Dojo, one that refers to a Dan graded Budoka and not strictly a teacher.
The term is further confused with the introduction of the word, Sempai.
Sempai is a term that describes a senior or more experienced person. They are not necessarily a Dan grade and could be for example that a 1st Kyu (Brown belt) is Sempai to a 4th Kyu (Orange belt). The 4th Kyu in this example is referred to as Kohai, as this term defines someone with lesser experience by comparison to another. It is indeed viable that Sempai may be, or in fact most likely is, involved in assisting in coaching Kohai, yet they will not qualify as Sensei. The spirit of martial arts generally suggests that one should be prepared to pass on knowledge to other, less experienced people.
In conclusion, and as mentioned already, the wearing of a black belt merely signifies that a person has reached a required standard to ‘begin’ their learning. It does not necessarily signify that the person has the required skills to be able to teach!
There may of course be situations where a Kyu graded Budoka takes responsibility for instructing a class as a part of their training, and may teach what they know to a high standard. In this situation, this person should be regarded as Sempai! This therefore introduces a further qualification for Budoka to be regarded as Sensei. He or she should have reached the level that suggests they are ready to begin their own learning and have sufficient knowledge to demonstrate and understand the basics, in other words they should have attained Dan grade level!
So what of the relationship that exists between Sempai and Kohai? The relationship, in essence, is a simple one, and is defined by experience and not necessarily grade. Grade is awarded typically through formal examination yet experience is considered extremely important. Perhaps the best example of this is the phrase 'with age comes knowledge'. It could be assumed that the longer you have been around, the more you may know, although there may be no formal recognition of this.
Ask yourself these questions: Are you any better the day before you take a driving test or another exam, than the day after? Or, does time and experience alone make you better? The test merely confirms you have reached a level of ability; that is all! It doesn’t suggest you have surpassed the level!
While controversial, this could be demonstrated in the way the coloured belt system works, moving from light colours such as white and yellow to darker brown and black. Perhaps this signifies a belt, which traditionally is never washed, getting dirtier. The more it is worn, the more experience is being gained and thus the more is being learned.
Experience in Martial Arts is paramount in considering grade, as a Budoka should grow not only in ability but also, and perhaps more importantly, in maturity. A grade should not be awarded if the Budoka has not embraced the spirit of Martial arts irrespective of ability and knowledge.
Bearing in mind what has been said so far, theoretically therefore it could be possible for a lower grade to be Sempai to a higher grade. For example a 1st Dan may have been graded rapidly while a 1st Kyu has perhaps missed formal examination yet actually has more experience.
Japanese etiquette is quite unlike the Western world and this relationship between Sempai and Kohai exists in every walk of life. In the Eastern world people are more humble and bow down to those with more experience or greater maturity, be that in life, work or Martial Arts. The best analogy we can use in our culture is that we should 'respect our elders', although this perhaps has been lost to a certain extent over the years. The term 'Elder' however in martial arts does not relate only to age but primarily to experience.
The relationship between Sempai and Kohai is therefore one of respect and recognition of experience! As such it is important that respect should be earned by the Sempai by leading through example and becoming a role model to their Kohai.
There are many sources of information available today via the internet and in books. The problem is that each seems to interpret information in different ways, perhaps based upon personal experience or dojo layout etc… We should keep in mind that the ideal is far from possible in a lot of cases but interpretation should be justifiable. You will find some differences between each Dojo you may visit because of the teachings received by the Sensei but it is important you remain humble, respect and acknowledge the Sensei, while also remaining true to yourself.