Sempai (or is it Senpai?)

This is one thing that has sparked some debate. While not a big issue it does warrant clarity. To fully understand this, we need to look at the development of the Japanese language. 


The written language in Japan came from China in the form of Kanji. These Kanji were (and still are) quite complex and difficuilt to learn. The Japanese simplifed them and used a script to help everyone to pronounce them. This was Katakana, a phonetic script. They then developed their own phonetic script called Hiragana. Katakana mainly is used today to translate for foreign words into Japanese (according to how they’re pronounced, not spelt). This is why you see kanji, hiragana and katakana used together in Japanese writing. Now starting with the kanji...


The kanji for Sempai or Senpai is 先輩. In hiragana it is written as せんぱい and it is used to pronounce the kanji. You might see it written like this:

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The hiragana is written above the kanji to aid understanding and pronounciation (and it is called Furigana when used in this way). So, first translation is from Kanji to Hiragana. 

The hiragana chanracters are: se n/m pa i. The western characters used to pronounce hiragana are called Romanji (the second translation).


せ  - se is pronounced as in “set”

ん - n/m - explained below

ぱ   - pa is pronounced as in “papa”

い   - i is pronounced like “eye”


ぱい - pa + i is pronounced like “pie”


This then leads us to the character ん. it is used to pronounce “n” or “m” as in “pen" or “hem” repectively (n and m sound similar don’t they and that’s why the one character is used for both). 


The use or n or m depends on the characters before and after ん and indeed the kanji it is used to translate or pronounce (e.g Sensei 先生 (せんせい). Note that “n” is more commonly used. There is also the issue of regional dialects or local variations which leads to variations in its proncounciation within different schools in different regions in Japan. 

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Within ABK, "Sempai” is used.


While there is no difinitive answer here, it is hoped that you now have a better understanding of how translation and pronounciation can lead to variation. 


What is more important is the meaning of Sempai and the rights and responsibilties associated with the title.


Sempai / Kouhai relationship - meaning of Senpai/Sempai

What is more interesting is the meaning of 先輩 “senpai” and its relationship with 後輩 (こうはい) “kouhai” (the ‘u’ is long sound for ‘ko’). 


Literally Sempai means senior (student) and Kouhai means junior (student). This implies that a duty or relationship exists between the two. The senior to guide, role model and protect the junior, and the junior in return respects and listens to the senior. 


Within martial arts Senpai is used to denote an assistant instructor. The Sempai is a senior student who helps the Sensei with the running ad management of the Dojo and its members. Sempai will do things like call line up at the beginning of training in readiness for Sensei’s instruction, teach new students the little things like how to bow (ettiquite), where to stand, how to tie a belt, open/close the dojo, and generally assist the Sensei as required. In return the Sensei mentors them in the ways of teaching. Thus the Sensei will ask them to instruct an aspect of the class (e.g. warm up) and guide them in their instruction.


I hope this clears up the proncounciation and meaning of Sempai and highlights the role and responsibilities of the Sempai in the Dojo.


Thank you to our new Sempais Glen and Sam for the question.


Additional Information - Dai-Sempai

In ABK a student may be awarded the title of ‘Dai Sempai”. This usually occurs when the rank of Nidan (2nd degree) is achieved. This student is essentially a ‘senior assistant instructor’. The Dai Sempai takes on roles and responsibility of mentoring Sempais, instructing kyu graded students and preparing them for gradings and also taking a class in Sensei's absence.



© Brett Walker on behalf of Anderson Bushi Kai Sunshine Coast Region 2016