Friday, June 6, 2014

Sensei, Kyoshi, Hanshi, Shihan: Budo titles and how to use them, or rather, how not to use them

You see and hear a lot of different titles in Japnaese martial arts.  Unfortunately, a lot of people have little or no idea how these titles and honorifics are actually used. I’ve seen people addressed as “Smith Sensei,”  “Bob Sensei,”  “Sensei Smith,” and “Sensei Bob.”  I’ve also seen people insist on being address as “Hanshi,” “Shihan,” “Soke,” “Shidoshi” and “Shidoin.”  In Japanese budo culture, only one of these is correct.

Being introduced as Sensei is fine. Introducing yourself with a title sounds either ignorant of Japanese usage or extremely arrogant, as if you are giving yourself some sort of title. If you are introducing yourself, it's just "Peter desu" or "Lowry desu" Anything more is arrogant or foolish. Even the very senior shihan of my acquaintance just introduce themselves with their names. Their business cards will have their ranks and certificates, but that's all, no honorifics. Those are  are something other people use to talk about you, not something you use for yourself.  Certificate titles like “shihan” or “shidoin” aren’t forms of address either.

“Sensei” isn’t a title.  It’s an honorific like “Mr.” or “Mrs.”  In English it would be a little strange to introduce yourself by saying “I’m Mr. Boylan”.  It’s even stranger in Japanese where the honorific a person uses to address you depends on your age, position relative to the person addressing you, the particular situation and your relationship with them.  I have been addressed as everything from “kun” (a diminutive used to show that I’m a lot lower status than the speaker), to “san” (the general honorific used for people of relatively equal status), to “sama” (shows great respect and implies high social status).

Sensei is mildly honorific. It means teacher, and everyone who teaches gets called sensei, regardless of whether you are teaching biology or swimming or kenjutsu or skateboarding. The 80 year-old nobel prize winning physics professor and the 16 year old skateboard teacher are both sensei. As is, I should add, any doctor and any politician. Do you really think being lumped in the same category as politicians is all that wonderful?

Many people are fond of trying to find deep meaning in the characters used to write Japanese words.  I don't get too excited over how words are written in kanji. The writing was decided a thousand years ago or more, and the actual day-to-day usage has shifted since then. Much more important is how the word is actually used in Japan now than how someone decided to write it a millennium or more ago.

if you teach English in Japan "Eigo no sensei" isn't too bad a way to describe yourself. It's a job description. However, "Eigo no kyoshi" would be more in keeping with standard Japanese usage.  “Sensei” is a title used to address people.  “Kyoshi” is a title used to describe a position, like “plumber” or “teacher” in English.  Hanshi, shihan, shidoshi and shidoin are also titles to describe a position or certification.  These are not terms ever used to address someone directly.  Using them in conversation would be like walking around a university campus and addressing the instructors by their official university titles.  “Hello Professor Smith.”  “Good afternoon Assistant Professor Nakamura.”  “Good evening Adjunct Instructor Rosen.”  It’s sounds quite strange.

Another note, you don't generally say something like "I am x's sensei." You'd say "X is my student" It's one of those cultural nuances.

I can't think of anyone who puts "sensei" on their business cards, and without trying to sound pompous, I've got quite a few business cards from 8th dans, various hanshi and shihan (If you hang out in budo circles in Japan for any length of time you'll accumulate a few. It's just a normal part of the social interactions. It doesn't suggest that you actually know anyone or have any significance yourself). If you have an organizationally awarded title such as kyoshi, hanshi or shihan, you would put that title on your business card. It's like putting Ph.D. on your card. It's a title that an organization has awarded you. You aren't claiming that anyone should use it in addressing you. Usually it's added along with a listing of dan rank, such as "Nanadan, Kyoshi" or "Hachidan, Hanshi". That sort of thing. I've never seen "sensei" on a card though.

This how these honorifics and titles are used in conversation.  “Sensei” is an honorific like Mr. or Mrs., but since it’s Japanese and we’re doing Japanese arts, it has to go AFTER the person’s name.  Please show a little awareness on this and don’t tell me “This is America.”  I know it’s America, but we’re practicing Japanese arts, so get the usage right for the art you’re praticing.  If you’re doing boxing or wrestling, whatever is standard in those activities is appropriate for those activities.  If you’re doing fencing or savate, you use the forms appropriate for them.
Using honorifics and titles incorrectly is a red flag.  If someone is claiming rank or claiming to teach Japanese budo and they aren’t getting simple things like proper use of honorifics and titles right, this is a big warning sign.  It doesn’t take much to learn how these things should be used.  If someone is using them incorrectly, it suggests to me that they really don’t have any experience in Japanese budo.  

So please, show that you know as much about the etiquette of the arts as you do about the techniques, and use the titles and honorific forms of address properly.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this post! I am a karate instructor who has not yet visited Japan and have had American instructors all my life. I truly appreciate you sharing your knowledge and would welcome more information on the proper reishiki of title usage and meaning. I also would like to have a better understanding of proper dojo etiquette. (It is all over the board in most dojos!) Do you have any books on the subject that you would recommend?

Thank you,

Ms. Vashon Borich

The Budo Bum said...

Hello Ms. Borich,
Thank you for your comments. In Japan, titles are usually for business cards and figuring out who outranks whom in the hierarchy. The only forms address normally used are "Sensei" which can be added after a name, or used by itself, and "san" which is only used after a name. "Sempai" and "Kohai" while popularly used in the US, are rarely used in dojo in Japan, and are much more terms used in grade school.

A good book for digging deeper into dojo etiquette and behavior is Dave Lowry's "In the Dojo: A Guide to the Rituals and Etiquette of the Japanese Martial Arts"

My personal comment on dojo etiquette is that first and foremost it should be sincere. The formal etiquette serves several purposes (providing structure, a clear understanding of proper behavior, a means of expressing respect and appreciation, and a way of maintaining a safe training environment, among others), but it should always be performed sincerely. It's not something for putting teachers on pedestals or for controlling students. When you do formal actions they should be done sincerely. I guess this is really the topic for another blog post. :-)

SGoody said...

Good explanation. I think it easiest, though, to address your teacher as sensei, and drop the other honorifics. What humble karateka would want to be addressed with anything more?

Unknown said...

Nice article and as I wrote, almost 100% correct but not quite. Firstly it is correct in Japan that "it is rude to be polite about yourself" and you would never say "Watashi-wa Jones-sensei desu". However, titles/ honorifics are often mixed with positions - for example Haruki Uemura the Head of the Kodokan is referred to as Uemura-kancho - kancho meaning "Head of School" or "Principal" and the shogo are also used e.g. Hamada-hanshi of the DNBK. What is wrong is when westerners say things like "I'm Sensei Hank". What is also wrong is to dismiss the importance of the kanji. The kanji is the first thing someone who is serious about developing an understanding of the concepts under consideration would look at. They are vitally important as writing Japanese words in Romanji often introduces misunderstandings. For example "kyoshi" can be written in two ways - one (教師) means "teacher" the other (教士) is a shogo title. You can see that the "kyo" character is the same, but the "shi" in the former means teacher, expert, master. The shi in the latter is the same as in bushi and means warrior or samurai. Also, in an academic and other setting people are usually referred to as Professor Goldsworthy or Dr Jones if they hold a Chair or have an earned Doctorate. What is also totally wrong is dubious Martial Arts organisations that call their teachers Professor.....

The Budo Bum said...

Mr. Jones,
If I ever get things 100% correct, I fully expect the world to end. I purposely avoided the use of positions as titles. Really understanding that aspect requires a level of understanding of Japanese culture and social norms that isn’t necessary for simple level of using budo titles and honorifics correctly. Positional title references such as kancho 館長, bucho 部長, and shacho 社長 simply stating a particular role a person holds within an organization. I know of many dojo in Japan where the kancho is not the head of the dojo nor the most senior member or highest ranking teacher. He’s the one who handles the operational responsibilities for the dojo or the group.

Your examples of the uses of hanshi and kancho point up just how complicated Japanese use of titles can be. While you might refer to someone as “Hamada Hanshi” in the third person, you would not be likely to use that as a form of direct address. We refer to our Shinto Muso Ryu teacher as “Shihan” among ourselves in the third person, but he is always “Sensei” when we are talking to him.
Kanji are important for distinguishing between words, I fully agree. I was horrified the first time I read something in kana and thought “Couldn’t they just write this in kanji? It would be so much easier to understand.” However, it is not as useful for finding deep meanings in words that have been around for a millennium or more where the actual usage has shifted over time. What was meant by the kanji when it was first written is no longer relevant to the meaning and usage of the word now. For distinguishing between the seemingly limitless homonyms of Japanese though, kanji are indispensable.

Ronin scholar said...

Actually, attorneys are also addressed as "sensei," along with doctors and dentists. To this day I remember a fellow American dojo mate who thought one of the other students in the Japanese honbu was also a teacher because he was, in fact, a lawyer, and everyone called him "sensei." (He was, in fact, my kohai). No matter how I tried to explain, I could not convince him. To him, "sensei" meant martial arts teacher, period!

With regard to referring to American martial arts teachers as "professor," I have found this in some very old American dojo where the teacher has been around for a long time (i.e., 40-50 years). Having become familiar with the word "sensei," and having looked it up, the members found the translation to be "professor" and used it accordingly (yes, I think it seems weird, too).

David Cobb said...

With regard to the use of Professor as a title, some of the Chinese systems will use it as will many of the Filipino MA systems.

I believe it is also used in American Kenpo for certain ranks, but I believe GM Ed Parker wanted all ranks and terminology to reflect the "American" in American Kenpo.

Doesn't make it wrong, just different...

Great article, by the way, thank you for sharing.

Princekermit said...

The radical shi (士) seems to have originally meant a person who performs some function or who has the ability in some field of knowledge.

Early in Chinese history it came to define the upper class of society, and in the Book of Han this definition is given:

The shi,
the farmer,
the craftsman,
and the tradesman are the four noble professions of the people. He who occupies his rank by means of learning is called a shi.

Some authorities, such as William Scott Wilson states that the "shi", as the highest of the four noble classes.

While it is Japanese we speak of, it is easy to forget that the Kanji is Chinese and a lot of thought is borrowed from the source language.

Look to the old to understand the new -G. Funakoshi

Unknown said...

When do we use Shihan and when do we use Hanshi? I think Hanshi is more common right?

The Budo Bum said...

Both hanshi and shihan are titles awarded by organizations. You use the one that the organization in question uses. If you are in the Kendo Federation, you use hanshi. If you are in the Aikikai, you use shihan. There is a little more nuance to it than that, because shihan can also be used to indicate respect for someone. I have teachers that we, the students, refer to as "Shihan" but only in the third person. We speaking directly to our teachers, they are "Sensei."

Mama Iga said...

Dear Budo Bum, thank you so much for writing this up. I am acquainted with a great - and humble - master who is a Dai Shihan within Bujinkan, and it has been a lot on my mind whether I am offending him by addressing him as "(first name) Sensei". Not that HE would get offended as he is far too wise for that, but still, I did not want to address him inappropriately, while at the same time "sensei" seemed much more natural. Thanks for making this clear!


One more aspect. I once referred to an eminent instructor of another school as "X-sensei" in conversation with my own instructor, and he asked me, "Why are you calling him, 'sensei?' He's not your teacher." He stated that the only people one should call by such an honorific was someone in one's own lineage (I should not call HIS same generation training brothers - senpai or kohai - 'sensei' either, only HIS teacher.
The only exceptions was in direct dialogue, if one GENUINELY (or tactically) wanted to offer respect to someone of another ryuha, or perhaps, if someone was of much greater age. But, he cautioned, if you called X-san as 'sensei,' he would presume the right to take liberties with you.
Pretty strict and old school, perhaps. (His statement regarding membership in the Kobudo Shinkokai was, "Why should we be presenting enbu with our enemies?")