When does Seniority Matter?

Regardless of who starts first; ability decides seniority in Wing Chun. ~ Yip Man

I’d like to introduce a recent story of mine.

This happened two days ago at my retail job. I was helping out in a different section of the store when I noticed the next customer in line was a white belt from my dojo. We said our pleasantries, but it was what happened next during the exchange was what caught my eye.

At the moment that I said “Hi” and he replied back, he quickly stiffen his posture up to an erect stance – attention military style. In fact, I can still bring up that picture of him stiffening up at attention.

Now picture this: this man is easily twice my age – late forties or early fifties and he’s shopping for cookware with his wife. He stands around 6’3″ and gives off the “economics professor” vibe (I believe his day job is as an engineer) and he’s standing at attention to me.

How odd.

He prompted relaxed after this “salute”. This was a little weird, but the kicker was that he mentioned “sensei” (or senpai) under his breath as I was asking his wife if she was being rung for her purchase of a frying pan.

As I remembered this on my way home that night, I realized that it was my first time receiving this type of treatment from anyone in my martial arts experience. If it was one of my kid’s who I had taught a while back, then it’s a rather comical scene (one of the five year olds keeps on asking me if I work at the retail store that he saw me at). But for a full grown man who has a career, job, wife, kids (I’m assuming) to essentially bow to you is a little…flattering to say.

I still don’t know how to process this. Here I am a poor, washed-up graduate student who has for the past six months been in quasi-exile and yet this white belt (sorry I’ve forgotten his name for the life of me) still gives me the impromptu salute befitting of a Sensei!

Upon reflection I don’t think he was aware that he was standing at the salute that he gave me. Something that has been rooted into his psyche? Perhaps. In any case I hope I don’t take this too seriously; these acts of respect is great and all but like I said, I don’t sincerely believe I am worthy of such shows of…importance, especially from an older person.

*Additional information

Personally, I was reared to respect my elders and anyone who was older than me. I was also taught that anyone younger than me was somehow “lower” than me in experience. As I grew up and subsequently reevaluated this outlook, my view on seniority has changed. Nowadays my outlook leans more towards Yip Man’s quote from the top of this post. Several moments non-martial moments in my life made me rethink what “seniority” means, especially when it came to life experience. I personally know several people who are not of drinking age yet they have had more professional experience than I have! Anyway I digress, but does this translate onto the mat?

In Japanese martial arts such as Aikido, the ranking system is more or less in line with whoever started first: the most experienced and “better” than those who started afterward. With my changing views on seniority it will be interesting to see if this gets to be played out in Aikido. So far I’ve only seen what was described above.

So when does seniority matter? What does *true* seniority mean?

Till next time ladies and gentlemen!


2 thoughts on “When does Seniority Matter?

  1. Thanks for the cool post.

    I think “ability” is also hard to define. What if one student is simply stronger than another? What if he has physical power but no discipline?

    That is why I find it inspiring when I see UFC fighters who are only purple or brown belts. It means that even though there’s a good chance they could kick the s#$t out of their instructors, they still fall somewhere in the hierarchy. It enables them to learn.

    1. Your welcome, and thanks for dropping by!

      I actually explained the definition of seniority further in the post after this one
      (https://dragonriderone.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/musing-when-does-seniority-matter-part-2/). But to answer your question: ability is not just belt but also personal ability in conjunction with personal development. The last part is hard – only the really experienced teachers can tell the difference. For example, my own teacher doesn’t promote those to black belt unless they’ve been with the school for a long time because he needs to observe them. Most of the students who have gotten their dans have trained any where from 4-10 years before they get their black belts.

      Oh and having a hierarchy enables them to learn discipline, patience, among other things.

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