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Karate traditions call upon you to show a great amount of respect to students who have been studying at your school for longer than you have. These students are called your senpai. If we think if the relationship between you and your karate teacher, or SENSEI, as similar to that between a child and a parent, then you should consider your senpai to be more like your older siblings.

Your sensei is your elder not just in karate but in all aspects of life. As such, you should show your sensei the utmost respect. While your senpai is also your senior, he or she precedes you only in relation to a particular discipline- in this case, karate. While you must still treat your senpai with the appropriate respect and courtesy, this difference makes him or her more approachable.

The first ideogram in senpai is the same as the in sensei, namely, sen which means “to precede” or “to lead.” The second ideogram, hai (pronounced pai in this case) means “a group of people.” A senpai, therefore, is a colleague who precedes you within a group.

A good senpai will not hesitate to give you individual help in your training in addition to the instruction you receive from your sensei. The senpai, who is still a student like yourself, may at times be in a better position to understand your difficulties and frustrations. If you feel you have found a good senpai, you should be able to seek that person’s assistance is solving any problems you may have in your study of karate.

Depending on the traditions of your particular karate school, there may be times when you are required to recognize a senpai’s seniority. When you bow, for example, you may not be allowed to raise your head upright until after the senpai has done so, or you may be asked to clean up after practice, while your senpai shower and leave ahead of you. In Japan, there are even instances when junior students are required to launder their senpai’s uniforms, though you will probably not see anything like that going on in the West. 

While you may not look favorably on such obligations, keep in mind that these are opportunities to express your humility as well as your respect for the traditions of the school. Furthermore, the senpai are not without their responsibility toward you, either. The relationship between senpai and KOHAI, or juniors, is always special.

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