View Single Post
Old 10-12-2008, 01:17 PM   #33
Ellis Amdur
Ellis Amdur's Avatar
Location: Seattle
Join Date: May 2003
Posts: 904
Re: Who to call "Sensei"?

Rocky's response is right on, from start to finish!
Let me add a couple of more pieces. In koryu circles, you are only required to call a person in direct line with you sensei. For example, my teacher is X and his teacher is Y. I would call X and Y sensei. However, Y has another student, Z, senior to X. I am NOT expected to call Z sensei. He or she is an uncle/aunt, not in direct line.
Now, I COULD call them sensei if I want to offer them respect. (Or in covert irony, because they are a pompous ass). But unless my teacher X is totally on board with that, calling his senior (Z), "sensei" puts him in a bad light. My sensei, traditionally, is the direct conduit to knowledge, and calling someone else sensei could indicate that I assume someone else has what he does not. How would I know what my teacher wants (because my teacher won't tell me)? Kan (intuition). This is training - when you pick up the unconscious or unsaid wishes and intentions of another, you are training exactly the kind of things that are essential in swordmanship.
A couple of other nuances:
When I trained at the Aikikai, I called all the teachers "sensei," except Shibata, (then 4th dan), Seki (then 4th dan), Yasuno (then 4th dan) and Miyamoto (then 3rd dan). Although they were seniors to me, they were apprentices - so they were "san." Others called them sensei - I did not, and none of them batted an eye. BTW - Yokota was junior to me in Kuroiwa's dojo before he became a deshi at the Aikikai, and he was "kun" to me - a diminuative, used for a younger friend. However, unless we had maintained a relationship over the years, I would not call him "kun" were I to see him today.
Were I taking class with one of them today, it would be a judgement call. Technically, as our relationship was a "san" relationship, that would continue. BUT - a) if, after thirty years, they did not remember me - very likely - it would be jarring b) if they had not made a point in front of the students to greet me as an "equal," a long-departed friend, it would also be jarring, because to them, an unknown was treated the teacher too familiarly. So in such a case, I would, on the mat, use "sensei."
Were I to meet any such person, and not be taking a class, I would not call them "sensei." And particularly for those of equal or lesser years, I would expect them be presented with the dilemma as to whether they should call me "sensei" as well. (That was one of the most enjoyable and fascinating dances at the various Aiki Expos - sometimes being called "sensei" by someone because they had to - they thought - and they tried to patronize me in the process, and others who were delighted to find someone that in their lights was as real as their own ideals, and they happily called me sensei as I did them). Other teachers, I called "san" because they were junior to me in years, rank, or clearly in skill. (see "arrogance" below).
One final nuance - Terry Dobson was, for many years, associated with Saotome Mitsugi. Terry was kohai (junior) to Saotome by a few years at the Aikikai. He called him sensei for the years they were associated in the States. I used to argue with him about this, because that defined him, in everyone's eyes, as Saotome's student, and that fundamentally changed how Terry was viewed. His choice, his karma, but his mistake, because it undermined his own lifestory.
I have been friends with some shihan and referred to them as "san," in all circles - humility can be taken too far, and arrogance is also part of the martial arts. I was saying to such men - "you are used to all Caucasians being craven and obsequious, calling you sensei by merit not of who you are, but simply that you are Asian and a martial artist and have a high rank. But you and I are equals - at minimum. If you have an objection to that, let me know."
The choice of the word defines who you are, sometimes.


Last edited by Ellis Amdur : 10-12-2008 at 01:31 PM.

  Reply With Quote