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The Meaning of Sensei

When we practice budo, we do so under the guidance of a person who is almost always addressed as "Sensei." I have heard all sorts of definitions of the meaning of "sensei" put forth by people. Among them I have heard that '"Sensei" means "teacher in all aspects of life."' In conjunction with such other strong definitions, the behavior of non-Japanese towards their "Sensei" often is often extremely self-effacing and servile. With Western 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 Japan, while "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 for whom they are performed has a lot to do with what "Sensei" means in each case.

I am one of these "Sensei" people, in several positions in my life. "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. So, lots of people can be called "Sensei."

Of course, there are lots of people besides those who teach, whose position calls for the use of "Sensei" as a formal titles. Doctors are always addressed as "Sensei." So are lawyers and politicians.

Japan is a radically 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 affixed with the term 'san' when they don't have any significant title. All schol teachers are "Sensei", the head teacher is always "Kocho Sensei" or "Principal Teacher" and the deputy is "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 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. 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.