Basic Definition of 先生 (Sensei):
“Sensei is a honorific term that is translated as “person born before another” or “one who comes before”. Generally speaking, it is used in its propre form, after a person’s name and means ‘teacher’. The word is also used a title to address other professionals or persons of authority”.
I’m often asked, “what should I call you?” My answer is that this is up to each individual person. In my daily life I’m usually called by my first name ‘André’, and this is also fine in the dojo as well. However, if someone seriously wishes to learn from me, ‘André Sensei’ or just ‘Sensei’ is correct. This is because wishing to learn from someone and merely calling them by their name (in Budo) is actually condescending, uneducated or both. While I personally do not take it offensively, if someone is learning from me and simply calls me ‘André, there is naturally going to be barrier between me and the respective trainee(s). This is a natural etiquette-based outcome that transcends Budo and Japanese culture. It is commonsense. The exception to this rule is for those who teach children… Needless to say, it must be demanded that children call their karate teacher ‘Sensei’; that being said, this article is about adult practitioners of Karate-Do.
|My SENSEI: Asai Tetsuhiko.|
So, it is important to know that no one can never refer to themselves as ‘Sensei’. That is for others to decide to call them if they wish to learn from the person in question. This is because ‘Sensei’ is not an automatic title (a right) but, rather, an honorific title which we use to respect someone and their knowledge; furthermore, the title of ‘Sensei’ functions as a catalyst to open the door to accessing deeper levels of knowledge—based on the will of respective teacher.
On the other side of this, is that “…one who is called Sensei should be mindful of the person honoring them with this title and should act accordingly”. This is hard to see in Japan, especially amongst the older generation, but is something that I personally believe is essential if we wish to take the Dojo Kun seriously.
How about the titles of Shihan, Fuku-Shuseki Shihan, Shuseki Shihan, Soke and so on? Well, usually such titles are for paper only; that is, they are organizational titles. For example, on a paper document such as diplomas or on websites. Those of 5th Dan or 6th Dan and above often have the title of Shihan. Nevertheless, in the dojo the title of ‘Sensei’ is typically utilized for all levels of instructors. Indeed, some groups use these terms verbally—and it is fine, but this is not the case in mainstream Shotokan style karate. The exception might be in a major event such as an international seminar or competition.
|My Sensei's SENSEI... Nakayama Masatoshi.|
For example, Funakoshi Sensei (note I’m using ‘Sensei’ even for the father of modern day Karate-Do) was the first Shuseki-Shihan of the JKA and Shotokai. Likewise, Asai Sensei was the Shuseki-Shihan and founder of the IJKA and JKS. Again, note, I am still referring to him as ‘Sensei’.
How about the term ‘master’? In television, radio and newspaper interviews over the years I have been referred to as a ‘karate master’. I have never liked this term, as I find it to be opposite of what we do in ‘the empty hand way’. Instead, I prefer to think that we are all seeking to master our karate, which is an unattainable goal. This motivates me. So, being called a ‘master’—whatever that might be—is something that I believe is actually inappropriate for our art. That being said, there is still nothing wrong referring to someone as karate master. Especially those who have been experts since youth and continued teaching and training into their old age. I consider several of the greats ‘karate masters’, but the term ‘Sensei’ still applies in person.
Wider use of the title ‘Sensei’… Here in Japan the obvious examples of using ‘Sensei’ is the school system from yochien (kindergarten/pre-school) right through to daigaku (university). However, there are other fields, as stated in the opening of this article. For example, dentists and doctors are also called ‘Sensei’.
For all of you around the world reading this, I ask you to read it knowing it is NOT AN ATTACK what I'm about to say next. But an update of knowledge from my wish to teach you about Japanese. Finally, I feel it must be explained here on this site, as hundreds of people have innocently referred to me in this way. Often people call me ‘André San’. Again, please do not worry as I understand that these people are just trying to be nice (and certainly mean no offense to me or others). But to be honest, it is actually not good. Please do not use ‘San’ after someone’s name unless you live in Japan and are dealing with clients. Think of it like this, in English… “Hello Mr. André. Could you teach me this kumite technique Mr. André. Thank you very much Mr. André”. “Mr.—Mr.—Mr. Andre”. It sounds sarcastic doesn’t it. Lastly, if this is your habit, NO PROBLEM! You can blame it on Mr. Miyagi. In sum, drop the ‘San’ and stick to ‘Sensei’ if you want to be polite or just stick to people’s preferred name.
So, in the context of karate (Shotokan style), if you wish to show respect to an instructor, use the term ‘Sensei’. And, if you have a personal relationship outside of training (and/or are not learning from them), just call them by the name they go by. For example, I have a friend, who is very senior, who simply likes to be called ‘Yoshi’ outside the dojo. Still, however, I can’t help but call him Sensei. This is also fine and indeed, ‘safe and respectful’.
|The Sensei of my Sensei's Sensei!!! Funakoshi Gichin SENSEI...|
So, I hope that this article informs you about the title of SENSEI and how to use it. To recapitulate: (1) Never refer to yourself as Sensei—it is an honorific title from others (the only exception is dealing with children); (2) If you respect someone, who you wish to learn from and you desire a fully open relationship—especially in Japan—call them ‘Sensei’. In the cases of learning a Japanese art/discipline, not using ‘Sensei’—in this context—is actually unimaginable; (3) Avoid calling people ‘San’ and ‘Sama’ unless you are working in Japan in some form of service-based occupation, salesmanship or government department; and (4) There are many other titles which denote positions in various organizations but, in the end, ‘Sensei’ is still the ultimate. This is because calling someone ‘Sensei’ is not merely a title: it establishes a personal and respectful ‘teacher-learner’ relationship. Really speaking, the simplicity of the title 'Sensei' surmounts all of the other titles and, dare I call it, 'bling'.
To conclude, one practice I have always done is to call all instructors ‘Sensei’ when I’m in the dojo: irrespective of tenure, age and Dan. Outside of the dojo I tend to still call my seniors ‘Sensei’ and juniors by their first name. However, if the students of my juniors are with them, to be polite in this context, I also call them Sensei. This is not necessary, but I believe that reflects the courtesy that is imperative in Karate-Do; that is, being mindful of thinking of others first. As Funakoshi Sensei said: “Karate-Do begins and ends with courtesy”.
Lastly, when I am called SENSEI by serious budo karateka, it's a real honor, also a responsibility: both of which must never be taken-for-granted. Again, this is the essence of Karate. Osu! – André
© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2020).