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Kids World

Topics of interest to teachers of English as a second or foreign language to young learners.

December 15, 2003

"Sempai-kohai" Relationships

Kids When I first came to Japan, many moons ago, I had the honor of practicing judo at the Waseda University judo dojo. It was a great introduction to this country in that instead of going through layers and layers of social protocol, I got to the marrow of Japanese relationships right away through the impact of being thrown on the dojo tatami.

Most edifying for me was observing "sempai" (upperclassmen) and "kohai" (underclassman) interact with each other. Since I was new to the dojo, someone had to teach me the basics. No one really wanted to take on this task because I had three strikes against me: Namely, I was the only female, I was a true beginner, and I didn't speak much Japanese.

The judo coach told a sempai to assign someone to help me. The sempai told a kohai to show me the ropes. So every day, without fail, a different kohai would practice with me and teach me judo step-by-step. As days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months turned into years, I gained more experience and confidence. As a result, some of the sempai would practice with me and even the teachers, too. To this day, I feel a great obligation to the kohai who exhibited great patience with me in the beginning, to the sempai who encouraged me and to the teachers who welcomed me into the Waseda judo club.

I think many aspects of the aforementioned Japanese "sempai-kohai" system work well with English classes. Whenever a newcomer comes to any English class, I always assign a sempai to help the newcomer (kohai) feel comfortable and show him/her the ropes. For example, the sempai can sit with the newcomer and show how to copy the blackboard, how to do the homework, and how to look up words in the dictionary. In addition, the sempai can help the newcomer with warm-ups, self-introductions, class activities and games. At the end of the class, he/she can explain the class rules, and the newcomer can ask any questions he/she might have.

This kind of scenario accomplishes many things. It frees up the teacher who is focused on the group. It takes the pressure off the newcomer who feels a bit of pressure in a new situation. And it empowers the sempai who understands the system and is eager to explain it to new people. In addition, the sempai often feels honored that the teacher believes in his/her ability to take on this orientation responsibility.

As time goes on, the kohai gains confidence and expertise; the true reward comes when the teacher asks this student to take on the role of sempai and help a newcomer in the class. Through experience, the status of the student changes, and because he/she knows what it felt like to be a newcomer, the sempai can teach, guide and support the new classmate with empathy.

I think it is a win-win situation for the teacher, the sempai and the kohai. Even though I was a veteran teacher in New York, I never thought to use this technique. I learned it from the Waseda judo club.

It was many moons ago, but I still remember the names of the kohai who introduced me to judo: "Kita-san, Tsuji-san, Miwa-san...arigato!"

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