Very interesting topic, Van. And thanks for the invitation to chime in. You of course knew that I'm never afraid to say what I think...
You and I have been in this for a long time, Van - you more than I. And we're also both professionals outside of the dojo, attempting to show what our predecessors meant by karate "do" vs. karate jutsu. And we both have practiced multiple martial arts, and have had the benefit of meeting many great but humble men. And we both have the benefit of being exposed to multiple cultures. So my guess is that neither of us would get all that emotionally hijacked over the subject.
I remember once hearing Bobby Campbell describe Uechi Ryu as a Chinese style in Okinawan clothes. The description still brings a smile to my face. I bring that up because this whole seniority thing we're attempting to characterize is very dangerously in the realm of an Asian concept in American clothes. What we do here with "martial arts" spans the spectrum from combat to law enforcement to sport to art to lifestyle. And what we do is in a constant flux, making seniority of anything almost a silly concept.
Remember when life was much simpler? The center of Uechi's universe was Futenma, and we all celebrated the seniority of the great but humble Uechi Kanei. We all more or less had a place in the greater hierarchy, and we all had numbered certificates with official stamps from a single, central organization. Then Uechi Kanei's health began to fail, and all hell broke loose in The House. The secretary ran out the door with the official books, the son was maligned, some great practitioners quietly backed away from the unseemly behavior, and we all had to start over again. But it wasn't all bad. It's reminiscent of the attack by a rival hominid group in the film Quest for Fire
. It was a terrible event that led members of a complacent tribe through an incredible journey which resulted in game-changing discoveries. It was just a story, but a telling one nonetheless.
When thinking about seniority, I reflect a bit on my professional life. After spending years paying my dues in school and then in academia, I was called upon to start a research unit (at a director level) in a Virginia BCBS. At the time I felt too young for the role, but I managed to rise to the occasion. It was a great 11.5 year ride that might have ended differently when the Virginia Plan chose to go public. As it turned out, they lost out on their bid to be a Southeast Region Superplan, and allowed themselves to be bought out by what is now Wellpoint/Anthem. I hedged my bets by buying lots of stock. I made out like a bandit on my stock, and lost my job because Richmond was no longer the center of that company's solar system. Many of my seniors similarly fled the organization, and created start-ups.
A similar scenario happened again at my next job. My company made a "gold standard" product, but got bought up by a "big fish." They disbanded the company and brought the expertise to their home.
And it happened again. I worked for a tuna which sold a "gold standard" product (also used by the federal government, by the way), and a shark bought us up. Thanks for the memories. More excellent experience on my resume, but...
I'm working again. I've somehow always managed to land on my feet. And with each new company, I lost seniority on day one but gained greater experience. I no longer direct people today and I don't have the headier management-level salary, but... I'm learning and I'm having a blast. And I'm being watched.
More importantly... I learned a lesson very early on when doing a postdoc at UVa under a great researcher. The lesson I learned was never to get too far away from being the person who actually makes the widgets. Any fool can D&D (delegate and disappear). But a company makes no money if there isn't someone there to do "real work." My mentor at UVa would be in there with me doing the experiments, and he wanted me to hand him the data partway through the process. And he wrote like a madman, and encouraged me to do the same. When he presented at a conference, nobody mistook him as a person who was detached from the lab and didn't really have a clue what was happening.
A book worth reading about this subject is Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success
. In it he describes a problem with KAL (Korean Airlines), and why they had a series of fatal crashes. In Korea, age and experience are treated with reverence. That's wonderful... up to a point. When a copilot has knowledge of impending doom but doesn't seem to be able to get it through the thick skull of the pilot that they're all doomed, and he'd rather speak only once and let sheet happen, well... Houston, we have a problem.
Seniority is worth talking about to the extent that it helps us accomplish something. Right now if I was obsessed with seniority, I wouldn't have a job in this capitalist economy experiencing a wretched bear market. Meanwhile I'm doing things that few people with English as a first language can be found doing, and enjoying it. I got that opportunity because I never considered "real work" beneath me. And in doing so I'm actually better-poised to get the next management position - managing people who do my work.
"Seniority" in American martial arts is a bit like that. Take a look at the lay of the martial arts land today. Whatever you see today will likely be gone (as you know it) tomorrow. If you're not one of those people who bring something to the table, then the writing on parchment and the fancy belt won't mean squat. I'm not suggesting one need to be a sparring champion to be a senior, or a person who followed a "chosen" path. Far from it. I'm suggesting that the real seniors quietly persevere, and assume nothing. They may have great aspirations and frankly may be driven by gargantuan insecurities. But tenacity, ingenuity, and execution count more than pedigree. Why? Because outside an Asian culture, pedigree and 3 bucks might get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and not much more.
Or in the world of business, "What have you done for me lately?"
As with my own business world, it's very important that an American "senior" know how to reinvent him/herself as the world around us changes. Shinjo Kiyohide is a great example here. He was once an Okinawan Sport Karate Champion, but those sport sparring days are long over. And now a person who once (by Jim Thompson's account) didn't have a clue why we do all this Uechi pointy thing stuff is dedicating himself to rediscovering his style's roots. He accomplished what he did in the past not by being his father's son, but by doing what his father did. His insatiable curiosity and incredible tenacity - combined with having been dealt a good hand in life - have combined to make him as relevant today as he was in the past. His relevance takes on new meaning today, but he's still "the real deal." And if we're all lucky, we'll see a different Kiyohide when more wrinkles set upon his forehead.
As I was told once in a resume-writing class... It's not about where you've been, but what you've done. And the doing should never stop.
That's seniority in the eyes of this humble practitioner.