Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.


Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Friday, May 28, 2021

The Shadow Ranking System in Martial Arts


We're all familiar with the kyu-dan, colored and black belt ranking system. Some of us are also familiar with the kyoshi-renshi-shihan designations. Sometimes they co-exist alongside each other.

There is also the senpai (or sempai)-kohai system, which has to do with seniority.

Over at Kogen Budo, Ellis Amdur published an article about the senpai-kohai system. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read  here.


Senpai-Kohai: The Shadow Ranking System



Several decades ago, my friends Phil & Nobuko Relnick, high ranking members of Shinto Muso-ryu and Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu were traveling in Portugal. They visited a school of jogo do pau. Phil and Nobuko wanted to pay proper respect to the school they were visiting, and in proper Japanese fashion, asked, “Who is the instructor.” The older men looked puzzled, conferred with each other and pointing to one man, said, “Probably him. He’s the oldest.”

Martial arts rooted in a locale, be it a village, a hunter-gatherer band, or a faction in  a city, often did not have ranks, in the sense that we imagine it. Rather, the people with the most skill (of any age) were treasured and respected for their utility and elders were respected for their knowledge, their history and their authority as elders. This certainly is true of Japan. 

For thousands of years, villages and hunter-gatherers protected themselves, and they organized using the same hierarchical systems that kept the rest of their society intact. Skill and valor gained one accolades, and age and past actions gained one authority. Even after the central Yamato government coalesced through building a conscript military,  there were warrior bands in the frontier areas that eventually developed into the  bushi. They had leaders, to be sure, but within their bands, seniority (both age and entry into the group) carried considerable weight. This still applies within Japanese martial arts today. Senpai have authority simply by being there first.

I could easily write at length about the problems that such a system can foster; the Japanese high school and university club systems are rife with abuse, and the horrifying level of atrocities the Japanese committed in World War II, turning areas of China into an open-air Auschwitz, were fueled, in large part, by the perceived impossibility of defying one’s seniors’ demands. But let us leave such discussions for another time. Particularly when talking about martial culture, which concerns violence first-and-foremost,  one can easily focus on the worst. Within that same martial culture exists some of the best aspects of humanity, and that, too, is fostered in part, by a natural system of seniority.

Let us speak, specifically, about the role of seniority within koryu bujutsuThere are two aspects to seniority: who joined the ryuha first is the most obvious form of seniority; the second is who joined a specific dojo first, because, led by different shihan, dojo can have different cultures, and different hierarchies within which a guest from another dojo, a ‘semi-outsider,’ must fit. A perfect example of the complexity is shown by one of my former students, GM, who began training in Toda-ha Buko-ryu  at the Athens Hokusei Dojo. He moved to Japan, and when this proved to be long-term, he officially joined the Nakano Dojo of Kent Sorensen sensei, soke-dairi of the ryu, becoming his student. In terms of years of training in Toda-ha Buko-ryu, I believe he was somewhere among the middle-to-senior members of the Nakano Dojo, but in another sense, he was the most junior member of the dojo at the moment of his entry. So he had to find his proper place.

It’s even more complex, because one’s certification (shoden, chuden, okuden, or mokuroku, menkyo, inka, to call up two ‘sequences’ of rank) all plays into this. So how does one ‘calibrate’ these somewhat overlapping, slightly conflicting designations of seniority? Kan (勘) ‘intuition,’ something based on cultural knowledge, an observation of the way the dojo head treats each individual, and the way that the person in question integrates himself or herself within the dojo culture. And if it’s not working out, the senior members of the school (and rarely, the shihan) help the new member to re-calibrate to properly blend in.

A question could be raised: shouldn’t the school have a rule book, a behavioral manual that is handed to the student upon entry? Well, there may be, but only in the most general of terms. In many schools, one gives a kishomon (blood-oath), that gives a few general conditions for entry. (See Old School for a fine-grained analysis of such oaths). The kishomon gives only a few conditions, however, whereas we are speaking here of a very complex array of values and behaviors, the sum total of Japanese archaic martial culture. Note that phrase: ‘martial culture.’ To truly survive in high-risk encounters, one has to develop an exquisite sensitivity to other people, both one’s own allies and one’s enemies. 

The development of kan is essential. How can one develop the ability to intuit the level of confidence of one’s own people, the intent of one’s adversaries, unless it is a part of training? To be on tenterhooks, to be concerned that one might mortally offend one’s teacher or dojo seniors, requires that one develop an acute moment-by-moment sensitivity. Paradoxically, the successful student learns to relax while on tenterhooks, something I have referred to elsewhere as ‘wolf-pack etiquette.’ A set of rules, memorized by rote, will, first of all, be enacted in an artificial way, and secondly, will rob the student of an opportunity to develop what is really important–in short, reigi (formal/proper behavior) is the royal road to kan.



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