Disclaimer and Stuff

Firstly I would like to say that all of the material contained within this blog is of my own opinion and any inaccuracies in technical content or other's personal quotations are completely my own.

Secondly I would like to thank everyone in advance where I have used photos of you or photos you have taken. I have quite a library of digital photos and virtually no record of who took them so I hope you will take this general thanks as adequate gratitude. If there are any photos of you or taken by you that you would like removed please let me know.

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7th dan iaido grading due in

Saturday, 12 May 2012

"Sensei" - a personal take

I was recently (and by that I mean in the last year) contacted by a friend (who will remain anonymous unless they tell me that they want to be known for this question) and was faced with the following question-based-email (as I will refer to it), English isn't their first language so I have modified it slightly:

Hello Andy,

Perhaps I have an untypical question to you but I know that your knowledge is vast in the scope of BUDO.
What appropriate assessment is the relationship between teacher (sensei) and student? What spiritual and mystical aspect is of this agreement? How actually to receive the word sensei from a pupil ?

Whether you know where I can find it or if the time lets you write please tell me briefly about it as you think.

I wish you calm days and Happy New Year ,

I promised to respond to this person on the blog as I thought it would be an interesting post to make and hopefully a good discussion to have.

Firstly let's look at the literal meaning...

先 = sen;saki, ma~zu: ahead, before, future, precedence, previous

生 = sei, shou; iki~ru, ika~su (and about a dozen other readings): birth, genuine, life

I'm sure many who study martial arts are aware that the compound meaning is something like "one who has gone before" or "one that is travelling ahead". In Japan, the word sensei is used as an honorific and reference to any teacher, whether that teacher is in a school, a workshop or even a head chef teaching trainees.

It should be noted that like other honorifics in Japanese, one never uses it as an attachment to their own name, so for example I might refer to someone as Tanaka-san or Ishido-sensei, they themselves wouldn't call themselves Tanaka-san or Ishido-sensei, they would just say "I am Tanaka" or "I am Ishido". The various references and honorifics in Japanese, whether they are used to elevate a person (san, sama, sensei, dono) or as an equaliser or demoter (kun, chan) are not used by the person to refer to themselves unless they are doing it in an ironic way. If someone writes to you and finishes it with the signature "Johnson Sensei" then they truly are a Johnson in the more vulgar sense. One also shouldn't have the word "sensei" inscribed on jackets, belts or business cards even if you are buying it for someone else.

It is, however, not incorrect to say that you are, for example, an English teacher by saying "Igirisu no sensei desu"; here you are merely saying that you are a teacher of English rather than honoring yourself. These are matter-of-fact statements.

In my opinion though, most martial artists (or at least the ones that I respect, dead or alive) prefer to follow a most humble path and would say that they are still students of the martial art they follow rather than saying "I am a budo sensei". They might say that they have students but I rarely hear any Japanese sensei making significant references to this fact.

All of these aspects are worth thinking about...what does this simple word really mean?

I should perhaps make a small diversion and briefly explain some other terms used to describe teacher and how they differ from the word sensei.

師匠 = shishou, has a more literal meaning of teacher and is closer to the concept of one's master (the first character shi or sui means commander or governor). If a student has fully signed their life away to a master in the traditional martial arts sense then shishou is a more commonly used reference than just sensei although the latter is perfectly acceptable as an honorific to such a person.

指導員 = shidouin, also means teacher, guide or counselor. This word is more technically describtive of someone who carries out the act of teaching (shidou suru = to teach).

館長 = kanchou, meaning the head of a place, a director (literally "hall chief"). This word is often used in reference to the person that owns and runs the school as well as the person who might well be the head teacher out of a group of teachers that teach there.

Anyway, that's that, back to sensei...

I want to stray away from what the technical term means and now talk about it's use in the martial arts.

For those that don't know me that well, I started my training in iaido and jodo in Japan while living there for two years. I had already spent about ten years learning martial arts in the UK such as karate, aikido and jujutsu so I wasn't new to the concept of having a martial arts teacher to respect and look up to.

When I started in a Japanese dojo it was of course quite an enthralling moment. Being quite technically challenging to the untrained eye, everyone else who was doing iaido looked like experts at it. At first everyone who I came into contact was by default teaching me something. This was the nature of the dojo. While there was a head teacher there (my first iaido teacher, Noguchi Sensei) the dojo had a very informal and relaxed atmosphere and everyone focused on their own individual practice; seniors would help juniors, peers would offer assistance to others. I was of course at an utter loss and so for the first 6 months or so I would be assigned a senior who would help me. To every single person who helped me I addressed them as "sensei" and it was the most appropriate thing to do. To put it into context these were people who were sometimes older than me, sometimes younger, and ranged from shodan up to nanadan. The term "sensei" wasn't meant to denote "grand master" or anything like that, it was a sincere mark of respect and kind of gratitude for their help. And so this is how my understanding of the general term "sensei" consists: when you line up to bow, everyone up the line is sensei and everyone down the line is pond scum (only kidding). We never used the word "sempai" or "kohai" and my understanding is that this term actually comes from a less-than-martial teaching tradition. In any case, the sempai would normally be the senior student and one that would shout "Sensei ni rei" in a Kendo dojo. I heard the term "sempai" used in a work context but never in the dojo. Maybe it was a regional thing....

And so it was back in the UK where I was surprised by negative comments made by people in the BKA that so-and-so was being referred to as "sensei" in their own dojo because they were only 3rd dan. It didn't occur to me that one had to be a certain grade to be referred to as "sensei". I was aware that at larger seminars the honorific was normally used to refer to the top tier of teachers there (maybe 8th and 7th dans) but if one kept referring to every single senior as "sensei" then conversations that started with the words "Sensei told me that....." would be quite confusing.

And here, in my opinion, is where we have become a bit mixed up. The notion that someone needs to be a certain grade to be a sensei has led to situations where:

  • Some dojo's have no sensei (by the dojo leader's own definition)
  • Some sensei's are derided by others when they insist that their students call them "sensei"
  • Some students in Europe think that teachers like Ishido/Oshita/Morita etc. are their sensei because they once went to a seminar where they learned from this teacher
  • Some students have no defined sensei which leaves the students feeling a bit lost and wandering
I would like to make reference to something Ishido Shizufumi Sensei explained about five years ago at a seminar as a basis for how we might start thinking about the "sensei" concept. He explained that in Japan the person that you first started learning from (i.e. the dojo leader of the dojo you started at)  was your sensei...for life. Only through logistical needs i.e. moving to another region so far from your sensei that travelling back to the dojo on a regular basis was implausible, would one be able to change sensei and then only through an agreement suitable to both incumbent and future teacher. He then went on to explain that just because someone had been to one or all of his European seminars and even been to train at his dojo, it didn't make him that person's sensei (by this he meant personal and singular sensei rather than just the honorific reference). He clarified that he actually only had six European students, his six monjin (literally, students, in order of dan grade for no other reason than it's a defined order): Jock Hopson, Victor Cook, Chris Mansfield (my teacher), Len Bean, Loi Ah Lee and Louis Vitalis (I might have misplaced Louis in the order there but I can't remember when he took 7th dan, sorry Louis!). He also defined a number of people to whom he had an advisory capacity in their training, his daihyo (or representatives). Everyone else was either a student of these people or were people who could come to his seminars of their own free will, there was no other category...

I found this very interesting, the label "sensei" was a sliding one and could be used in a certain context but one could, if not careful, use it inappropriately. To say to someone "You are my sensei" and to be then told "No you're bloody not, sunshine!" would be an interesting bite of reality. It is from this understanding that I take the next part of the discussion.

Some people WANT to be a sensei. They want students, they want followers, they want the respect. These may well be people to steer well clear of in my opinion. Why is this - not because I don't like arrogant respeck'-hungry people (although I don't) but merely a concern that these people probably don't understand the immense responsibility they are undertaking. A responsibility which I think is understood by more experienced teachers and thus one which shouldn't be greedily and ignorantly propagated.

And so we get to the crux of the answer to the original question.

I personally am not a shisho or kancho i.e. I am not a dojo leader and thereby the head of a dojo and not anyone's formal sensei per se. However, since our dojo members have propagated and while this happened while our sensei was in Japan, I feel a certain sense of responsibility for all our dojo members. If I was their formal sensei (which I am not I hasten to add) then these are some of the considerations I would have:
  • I would be responsible for imparting information to them at a time and in a way conducive to their own learning path and style.
  • I would be responsible for ensuring that while I cannot be an infallible exponent of the martial arts, I can ensure that my own training and learning is progressive i.e. I train, and hard.
  • I would need to keep track of my students' progress and making sure that they are adequately prepared for gradings.
  • I should ensure that their experiences within the dojo were of net positive value, that is not every session can be ultimately enjoyable and sometimes there are bad times but on the whole the student wants to be there and feels that they can learn and develop.
  • I should ensure that interactions between students was also positive, i.e. no one was being bullied or intimidated.
  • I should strive that our dojo's name was kept respectable such that my students would be treated well when at broader events such as seminars, gradings or taikai.
  • I would be responsible that the training that my students took part in would be healthy, physically, emotionally and mentally. 
  • That if any of my students behaved badly either within or outside the dojo, while I cannot take responsiblity for the actual occurance, that I would be responsible for how that student was dealt with.
  • I would be responsible for ensuring the longevity of the dojo through correct administration or delegating these tasks to those who are willing and able to do it themselves. 
  • That by inference, any behaviour that I partake in is by definition allowable by any of the students - that is, that I should be careful how I behave so that my students incorporate good behaviours rather than ones that I accept in myself but find abhorrent in others.
These are, I think, the minimal considerations (and not an exhaustive list, to boot). If someone wants to take students and make them European champions and demigods unto others then that's a whole lot of other responsibilities.  A lot of these responsibilities I am sure develop with time and experience. Many, if not most, of the dojos in the BKA were started by people at shodan level who wanted somewhere to train and gradually attracted people who also wanted to train. These dojo-openers were left with the perplexing task of being, by default, their members' teachers. I should hasten to add, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Like politicians, the reluctant teacher is, I believe, the good teacher. If they were faced with a list of responsibilities such as the one I listed above and told that these were the things that they had to fulfill to merely open a club, many might not have done so and a shame that would have been.

In Europe nowadays we have many people in our own countries or countries only next door which have senior and experienced teachers who by the marvels of modern transport are not so difficult to access. They might not however be accessible to every person who seeks to start training and that is where we have, mainly studious, people who open a dojo so that others can come and train if they want to. And there, within those humble boundaries, a sensei is made...

This person doesn't necessarily want or consider themselves to be a teacher but they want to train and they don't mind encouraging others to do so - someone has to pay for the hall rental and it can be quite a lot. As time goes by, with people "under" them wanting to learn more from this dojo-opener, the person trains harder; harder than any of their students. They travel further to learn more, they come back and share this knowledge, they drive their students to their first seminar and make sure they are looked after, they introduce their students to other people from other dojos who this person already knows. They remind their students that an interesting seminar is coming up and as it is a full three months away, the student might want to consider taking their first kyu. They bring a first-aid kit to the dojo and stick plasters on their student's feet when they injure themself on the floor. They are first to the hall and sweep the floor so that their students don't get grossed out by the dust and muck that their previous hall users left behind. When two of the students start arguing about a point, they quietly intervene and set the record straight. Without even knowing it they have become a sensei, not just the door opener but a leader and a well respected one. They are ones who have gone before and they are ones whose trodden path others wish to follow.

And this describes the vast majority of dojo leaders that I have met in Europe. There are some exceptions of course but these are in the minority.

But now come the hard lines. Some of these dojo leaders, club-openers, sensei, whatever you want to call them, don't want to be known as "sensei". They respect their own inspirational teachers too much to want the term to be diluted and deferred to them. These dojo leaders are humbled by their highly experienced Japanese influencers. They are neither masters nor teachers, they are just people who have opened a club and let others come to train with them. This unfortunately does cause a problem. Tanaka Sensei, the person from whom this person learned iaido/jodo/kado/shodo through many European seminars and visits to Japan, doesn't even know this person's students. The dojo leader can hardly point at a photograph of Tanaka Sensei and tell his dojo members "THIS is your sensei". How can this person (Tanaka Sensei) be their sensei? He doesn't come to their dojo, he doesn't teach them anything directly,  he doesn't check their keikogi before going onto their grading, he doesn't bring the first aid kit or the money tin to the dance studio where they train. No, that club's sensei is the person who greeted that shy and geeky student when they walked through the door.

The humility and respect for those further along the path does this dojo leader credit and much due respect in itself but for all their reluctance to be known as "sensei" they have become one. And probably a good one at that. Unknowingly they have probably already taken on board many of the responsibilities that I mention above and probably more. Their students might consider these people to be personal and personable friends even someone they might joke with or even ridicule in moments of good humour (and drunkeness). But, this person is their sensei and in the dojo they are such.

Other senior students in the dojo might (and I mean, might) be referred to as sensei as well, or sempai or Fred but the sensei is this one person.

For many of us in Europe who might have little understanding of the culture that most Japanese people were raised in (with what might be becoming a more pervading exception in modern times) this relationship is something that is gradually learned and developed rather than something that one starts in a dojo with. If one is lucky then all of these aspects might be explained to them on them starting if the dojo leader is an experienced sensei and has already established a good structure in the dojo with senior students who have taken on responsibilities themselves. In an ideal sense, the relationship between sensei and deshi (pupil) is almost a contractual one: you come and train here and trust what I teach you and I'll let you train here and try to teach you as to the best of my abilities.

I am talking in an idealistic sense here still and one that some might take getting used to. On the basis that "the sensei" is responsible for all their current students' wellbeing and personal growth, they may also have to vet people who come through the door, sometimes turning them away and sometimes letting them in. This is the sensei's perogative in their dojo (I emphasise this because I am aware that in some European countries, the martial arts club has to be part of a municipal body and thus have to accept everyone who wants to join within the limits of the dojo space): if they want a dojo full with young attractive women or strapping hunky lads then that is up to them (the smell of hairspray and/or testosterone might make it not the most nice place to be in though).

As Peter Parker said, with great power comes great responsibility. Maybe that should be modified for martial artists though: with experience and dan grade comes great responsibility and....not much else. In perhaps more older and traditional dojo in Japan, the master did have much power in fact. If they gave a bowl of disgusting food to their student and said "eat this" then the student would eat it; if they said black was white and white was black then the student would believe it too. Certainly in times when listening and taking on board the most trivial of a master's commands could determine life or death this might have been the best approach to take.

We don't live in those times and how much of that tradition we take up is really up to us. Some people see martial arts as a hobby, some see it as something else. Some see their dojo leader as not much more than their coach, others see them other ways. How a sensei creates this atmosphere may well be up to them but I don't foresee any students being sent off to kill another dojo leader or political figure....I hope.

So finally I want to break down the original question into chunks and make sure I have answered as best I can:

  • What appropriate assessment is the relationship between teacher (sensei) and student? I think I have answered this quite comprehensively. Ultimately the contractual one above I think is the most appropriate - I teach, you learn, I say, you do.
  • What spiritual and mystical aspect is of this agreement? I haven't really covered this mainly because I would only be speaking from my own opinion and aspect but I think you will understand my opinion on this if I explain that I would describe myself as an atheist, a sceptic, a secular humanist, a student of science and an environmentalist. I don't keep much stock in terms of spirituality or mysticism. I believe that the road opens differently for all of us and that the sensei is one who provides the context for "guided discovery". They shouldn't be or need to be the spiritual counsellor for something that is best discovered for oneself. They can certainly share their own experiences but the best teacher is the one that advises their students "to go and have this revelation yourselves, discover the world for what it is and not what someone tells you it is, be considerate, be careful and be adventurous."
  • How actually to receive the word sensei from a pupil ? As I have described it and as I think most people mean it. I respect you but you have responsibilities. If I call you sensei then it is because you have proved that my respect is well placed. I trust you and I hope that you trust me. I entrust the guidance for the development of my budo to your care even though it is me that has to walk this path. I will in turn help you to do your job as best as I can and I will do my best to support you and represent the dojo in a good light. If either of us step across a line then we will either have to withdraw carefully or walk away from each other. My respect is conditional as is your teaching.

For more on this subject I suggest you read the following link...


on General Omar Nelson Bradley, the "Soldier's General" and the model on which I try to be the best encouragment for others to train hard in the martial arts.

I hope my opinions are reasonably clear. I don't mean to be disrespectful to anyone, I believe that every dojo is a microcosm and an association is not a nationwide dojo but rather a collective of dojos, each with it's own sensei and structure.

That's me done, howabout you?


  1. Sorry, I just noticed that about earlier phrase should have read "eigo no sensei desu" and not "Igirisu no sensei desu" - proofreading fail!

  2. Excellent post, Andy! I've yet to see such a comprehensive description of such a foreign term to western culture. It's evident that this post comes from a very real and personal place in your progress in Budo, as you're right at the threshold of that student/Sensei relationship.

    Your perspectives of a student and instructor shows how one cannot exist without the other, and can be in fact, the same person.

  3. I seem to recall being told by a very experienced teacher that if someone is the senior grade/teacher in that dojo they must be called sensei, simple as that.

  4. Hi Andy, an excellent post. Sent a link to this out to the members of my Club (Chikushinkai in Melbourne, Australia) by way of a little light reading ;)

    The relationship between student and sensei (and in particular how the relationship comes about) has been a bit of a hot topic within the Club recently and it's useful to be able to recommend such a well thought out piece to offer additional food for thought.

  5. This following commented came from Dillon who for some reason couldn't publish the note:

    Excellent post on what is a complex issue. The same kanji if used in Chinese simply means "Mr." Within Japan, as you have illustrated, the meaning varies with context.

    I have seen one unusual, perhaps unique, example of the use of the word "sensei" that to me illustrates what the depth of the role in the context of "one's sensei." At a local private kendo dojo near where I live, the former shihan, who passed away a few years ago, is still referred to as "this dojo's sensei." He was a high ranking kendo teacher well known by other senior teachers in Tokyo, as well as a practitioner of MSR iaido and Ono-ha Itto-ryu. The strength of his teaching is such that even now three years after he passed away, the members of this dojo still practice very clean beautiful kendo.

  6. Dear Andy, thank you very much for gave me such a good time reading this post.
    And let me say: how many people should read this post!
    Grazie e bravo!

    Davide De Vecchi

  7. Grazie Davide. Forse ci vedremo questo fine settimana a Bologna e possiamo avere una birra ...