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The Sensei

The Sensei – Ashihara Karate International – Kaicho Hoosain Narker Sabaki Fighting Karate

For every ten thousand students that join a karate class, half will drop out the first month. Of that five thousand, half will remain through the second month. Of those remaining students, one thousand will complete six months of training and then quit. Five hundred will study for a year, but only one hundred will see their second anniversary. Three will make first dan black belt, but only one will go on to teach others what he/she has learned. For karate is now part of his/her life, and he/she shall go on to share this life with others. This person is a SENSEI! Think about it – you are one in ten thousand.

  The meaning of the term “Sensei”

When we practice budo, we do so under the guidance of a person who is almost always addressed as “Sensei.” Various definitions of the meaning of “sensei” have been put forth. Among them is that ‘”Sensei” means “teacher in all aspects of life.”‘ In conjunction with such strong definitions, the behavior of non-Japanese towards their “Sensei” often is often extremely self-effacing and servile, with students tip-toeing around “Sensei” and always behaving in a subservient manner, while these “Sensei” may sometimes be tyrants both inside and out of the dojo.

In dojo’s in Japan, while the Sensei is accorded a great deal of service and respect, it is never given in a servile manner. Students do a lot of things for Sensei, like getting him a cup of tea or making sure that his shoes are placed where he can slip them on easily at the door. These are services performed out of a sense of gratitude, not servility, and whom they are performed for has a lot to do with what “Sensei” means in each case.

“Sensei,” as most martial artists are already aware, is written with the characters for “born” or “live” and “before.” Put together, you get born before, or lived before. There is nothing here which indicates a need for excessive humility when dealing with a person with that title. So the question is, who warrants being called “Sensei?”

The answer is, anybody in a position of status significantly higher than you are. The key here is that it must be a person in a position of high status. What the actual person is like has little to do with the title. The title is related entirely to their relative social position. Thus, lots of people are called “Sensei.” First, anyone who teaches is called “Sensei.” That includes pre-school teachers, or the person teaching English at a local school, and the local 19 year old giving skating boarding lessons. That’s why martial arts teachers are addressed as “Sensei.” They are teaching something.

Of course, there are lots of people besides teachers whose position calls for the use of “Sensei” as a form of address. Doctors are always addressed as “Sensei.” So are lawyers and politicians.

Japan is a rabidly hierarchical country. It is impossible to speak Japanese with any degree of politeness without constantly reinforcing people’s position in the hierarchy. The way you conjugate verbs is based entirely on your status relative to the person you are talking with. Using titles like “Sensei” is just another aspect of this cultural obsession with status and rank. In Japanese society, people are only addressed by their names + san when they don’t have any significant title. At schools there, all the teachers are “Sensei”, the principal is always “Kocho Sensei” or “Principal Teacher” and the assistant principal is always “Kyoto Sensei” or “Assistant Principal Teacher”. In the business world, if you are at the head of company, no matter how small, everyone who relates to you in the business world will address you as “Shacho” or “Company President.” If you work for a large company, you may well be known as “Kacho” or “Bucho”, “Department Head” and “Section Head”.

All of this is just to show that the term sensei has no special, mystical meaning attached to it in its home country. It is a term used to show appropriate respect to someone in a position of status higher than your own. The usage can cause some jolts. In Ashihara Karate, Sensei is a title reserved for those of the Sandan (3rd Dan Black Belt) ranking. I only refer to a Sandan who teaches as “Sensei” when I am talking about that person with a student whose status is significantly lower than the Sandan in the dojo. The term reflects their relative status. When I address them without such an audience, they are “San” or even “Kun,” a term that refers to boys, or as a term of familiarity when used with someone you like who is significantly below you in relative status.

All this is merely to make the point that “Sensei” is a term of respect. Not one of awe. If we appreciate our teachers more than usual, we should show it by going out of our way to do little services for them that make their lives a little easier. Scraping the floor and being subservient is not the way to show appreciation for your teacher. It just makes your teacher look like a petty tyrant, and you like a fool.