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Home > Language > Sensei/Shihan as "Teacher" in Japanese
by Peter Goldsbury <Send E-mail to Author>


[Discuss this Article Here]

Peter Goldsbury is the current chariman of the International Aikido Federation. He currently holds a 6th dan and is a professor at Hiroshima University. He has been living in Japan since 1980.


Sensei / Shihan as "Teacher" in Japanese

Jun Akiyama began the thread, "Responsibility: Teacher's or Student's?", in the AikiWeb discussion forum with a post suggesting that the Japanese terms Sensei and Shihan do not contain the Chinese characters commonly associated with teaching in its 'literal' sense (I have put the term in quotes to signal that the idea of a literal sense is not immediately clear, to me at least). He suggests consequences relevant to the way in which aikido is learned. I have already gone over some of the ground in a paper entitled, "Is Aikido Teachable?" (published in Aikido Journal), but did not discuss any language issues there. The discussion that follows is much more closely related to linguistics and the particular linguistic features of the Japanese language. (Note for grammar purists: I have clarity in mind, rather than any grammatical rules, with my use of quotations marks, italics etc.)

Jun's very interesting idea rests on several assumptions, which need to be clarified. In the first place, teaching, with the related concept of learning, is so crucial to the flourishing of human culture that it would be surprising if linguistic communities did not have a wide range of concepts with which to handle all the various nuances of these two concepts. In English, therefore, we can detect different shades of meaning in the terms 'teacher', 'educator', 'instructor', 'mentor', even 'master', as we can with the related terms 'pupil', 'student', 'learner', 'disciple', even 'apprentice'. 'Nature vs. Nurture' has an apt polarity, which the Japanese equivalents do not convey so neatly, but the range of meanings covered by 'nurture' is quite clear--and quite wide. There are similar shades of meaning in Japanese, as we shall see.

The second assumption involves the nature of Japanese, especially the written language. It should be kept in mind that the Chinese writing system was grafted on to an already existing Japanese language, with its own sound system, grammar and vocabulary (later called 大和言葉 yamato kotoba). Thus, the Chinese characters were used to write the Japanese language, as well as words in the Chinese language which were taken into use and modified in pronunciation. The consequence of this is that most characters have a Japanese reading, called kun, and a Chinese reading, called ON (usually capitalized). This fact of the origins of Japanese writing in Chinese characters, which were grafted on to an existing linguistic culture, seems to pose problems which are quite different from those posed by other types of linguistic change. For example, there is a difference between 'education' and 'pedagogy' because one comes from Latin and the other from Greek, but the fact that the latter word came from Greek and the constituent syllables were written in Greek is irrelevant. The type of alphabet has no influence on the meaning. However, in the Japanese language, the way a character can be read is considered to be a factor in what it means. The fact that a term has one or more Chinese characters, which are composed of certain parts, or radicals, and which can or cannot be 'read' in a certain way, is considered to have an influence on:

  • (i) the original meaning of the word (in Japanese),
  • (ii) the Chinese-derived meaning of the word, and
  • (iii) the meaning of the term in present-day Japanese.
A fourth factor of considerable importance is the development of both languages over several centuries, but especially the efforts to treat the Japanese language as something 'uniquely' unique, at the hands of the kokugaku scholars like Motoori Norinaga and others in the Tokugawa era. All languages can be said to be unique, but many Japanese believe their language to be uniquely difficult to understand, and impossibly so for non-native speakers. There is a mixture of linguistic imperialism and pseudo-mysticism involved here, which is sometimes attractive to practitioners of a martial art like aikido, where Japanese is used virtually everywhere to describe the techniques and the 'spirit'. Thus, the influence of the characters on the meaning comes into sharp focus.

To see the issues involved here more concretely, let us take two examples.

1. The first example focuses on the relation between the meaning of a word and the elements of the characters used to write the word.

Everyone knows that aikido is a Japanese budo. This anglicized Japanese word, when written in Japanese is composed of two Chinese characters 武 and道. If you consult a monolingual Japanese dictionary, you will usually find the word under ぶ, in the hiragana syllabary. In the Kojien, for example (p.2,350), three meanings of the word are given:

  • (1) 武士の守るべき道。武士道;
  • (2) 武術に関する道 (opposed to 文道);
  • (3) 武道方の略.
Rough translations of the above are:
  • (1) Way which should respect & preserve (the ideals of) the Bushi; Way of the Bushi;
  • (2) Way related to Martial Skills (opposed to the Way of Letters);
  • (3) Abbreviation for Methods of Budo.)
Here we will concentrate purely on 武. A consequence of the presence of Chinese characters in the Japanese language is that, in addition to the usual monolingual Japanese dictionaries, there are also Japanese kanji or Chinese character dictionaries, which give the meanings of the individual characters. In Kadokawa's 大字源 Daijigen, the largest one-volume kanji dictionary available, there are 11 meanings listed for this character, in order of historical development. The meanings range from: half a step (半歩 -- a measurement of walking); a footprint; remains; evidence; to succeed to or inherit; war; brave(ry); warrior; the art of war, all supported with quotations from literature. However, after listing the meanings of the complete character, Japanese kanji dictionaries generally give an explanation of the construction of the character itself (called 解字 kaiji, in Japanese). This character is composed of two elements: 止 and 戈. The first element is a character which originally meant 'foot' or 'advance', but which means 'stop' in present-day Japanese, and the second element is a character which means 'hoko', a kind of Japanese halberd. Thus with 武, the explanation usually found is of men holding halberds marching forward in a line. However, one eminent aikido sensei once explained the "real" meaning of 武 as 'stopping spears/weapons', concluding that aikido as a martial art was essentially peaceful. Actually, in some kanji dictionaries, this explanation is specifically declared to be mistaken. The mistake is supposed to be anachronism--reading into an old character a 'modern' meaning, which was not there originally.

However, there is another aspect to the matter. Japanese children spend many years in the daunting and remorseless task of learning by rote all the Chinese characters they will need at school and in daily life and kanji textbooks are full of aids for learning the character. The 'peaceful' explanation could well be a very suitable mnemonic for learning the character. Nevertheless, remembering 武 as 'stopping spears' might well help one to remember how to write the character correctly, but this memory aid should not be confused with an explanation of what the character originally meant and means now. Note that this problem simply does not exist for written languages based on an alphabet.

So we can pose the questions suggested in an earlier paragraph:

  • (i) What was the original meaning of the word in Japanese? Presumably it was the same as the Chinese meaning (the measurement of a man's footstep). There are many Japanese kun readings of the word: 'ato', 'shinogu', 'take' (as in 'takemusu'), being just a few.
  • (ii) What was the Chinese-derived meaning of the word? Again, the Chinese reading is wu and this was taken over as BU or MU. The meaning must have evolved, as with any other word in a living language.
  • (iii) What is the meaning in present-day Japanese? Here the 'peaceful' meaning, described above, might be quite plausible as a recent possibility, since the Tokugawa period ushered in an end to the wars that had plagued Japan for many centuries earlier. The samurai, or bushi (武士: the first character is the same) had little to do but administer estates, write letters and practise the martial arts. The only problem is that it does not appear in the dictionary and it would be a linguistic mistake to isolate this later hypothetical meaning as the "real" meaning of the word.

2. The second example does not touch upon the elements of the characters themselves, but deals with the relations between the characters, and how they are read, and the meaning of the word.

The word aikido 合気道 is composed of three characters:

  • 合(い) ai, meaning to fit, suit, fit together, combine. There are several Chinese-derived ON readings (from the Chinese ge / he come GOU, KOU, GA, KA), but the reading used for the martial art is the Japanese kun reading of the word.
  • 気 KI: a word with a vast array of meanings centering on spirit, mind, heart, intention, air, atmosphere. The Chinese-derived reading (xi / qi) are KI / KE and there is no separate Japanese kun reading.
  • 道 michi / michibi(ku), a word with a vast number of meanings having to do with path, road or way, leading, speaking, or even teaching (pointing the way). The Chinese-derived readings, from the famous word dao or tao (as in Taoism), are DOU / TOU.

Thus the word is actually read in a hybrid fashion, with ai- being Japanese kun, and -KI- and -DOU being Chinese-derived ON readings. We can ask the questions posed earlier.

  • (i) What is the original meaning of the word? This is an easy question to answer. There is no original pre-Chinese meaning, for the word was first coined around 1942.
  • (ii) What is the Chinese-derived meaning of the word? Again, this is easy to answer. There is no such word.
  • (iii) What is the meaning of the word in present-day Japanese? The term 'aiki' does not appear in any modern Japanese dictionaries and thus it has a restricted or technical use.
When the time came to mark off 'ai-KI-DOU' from its origins in aiki-budo, or aiki-jujutsu, a compromise was reached and the ambiguities conveyed by KI (body, mind and spirit) and DOU (a spiritual quest as well as a physical methodology) were retained. A Japanese native speaker will have a sense of the range of meanings and cultural resonance of the constituent Chinese characters, but is unlikely to understand what the compound word means without actually practicing the art, just like a non-Japanese practitioner.

We can now return to Jun Akiyama's original point, that 'Sensei' and 'Shihan' contain characters which do not 'literally' denote teaching. Jun's very reasonable assumption is that there is a group of Japanese terms that do denote teaching in a very basic sense. What are these? Here is a selection (by no mean exhaustive, with the base list taken from Kenkyusha's リーダーズ英和辞典 Reader's English-Japanese Dictionary). I could have trawled through Japanese literature and given examples of the words in general use, but the dictionary is a good place to start when seeking meanings in contemporary Japanese, which is the point at issue here. In most cases I give the stem of the word, which can be modified to make nouns and verbs etc, with the Chinese ON readings in capitals and the Japanese kun readings in lower case letters. So the data are presented below in the sections marked (A). Readers who do not have the patience to plough through these detailed explanations of etymology and linguistics can skip these parts and go on to the Discussions (B) and the Conclusions (C).

Educate / Education / Educator

  • (1) 教育(する) kyouiku (suru):
  • (2) 育成 (する) ikusei (suru):
  • (3) 訓練(する) kunren (suru):
  • (4) 養(う) yashina(u):
  • (5) ならす narasu.

Instruct / Instruction / Instructor
  • (6) 教授 (する) kyouju (suru):
  • (7) 教える oshieru:
  • (8) 教師 kyoushi:
  • (9) 指導 (する) shidou (suru) 指導者shidousha.

Teach / Teaching / Teacher

  • (10) 教える人 oshieru hito
  • (11) 教師 kyoushi
  • (12) 先生 sensei
  • (13) 教育者 kyouikusha


Educate / Education / Educator

(A) Data

  • (1) 教育(する) KYOUIKU (suru): a compound noun with the verb 'to be' added; the noun covers the entire spectrum of education: instruction, teaching, training, discipline, upbringing, breeding, culture. The noun, a compound of two characters, might fit Jun's idea of teaching in a 'literal' sense, except that it would be much too wide. The characters are:
    • (1a) 教え oshie: a term with a vast array of meanings, ranging from giving someone lessons to showing them the correct way to a place;
    • (1b) 育て sodate: a term also with a vast range of meanings, but centred more on breeding, raising, or rearing. When you combine the two and use the Chinese-derived reading (jiao + yu = KYOU-IKU), you obtain the term that has come to mean 'education' / 'educate' in the broadest sense.

  • (2) 育成 (する) IKUSEI (suru): a compound noun with the rather narrower sense of upbringing or rearing. The Kojien gives the meaning as, やしないそだてること。立派に育て上げること = nurturing and raising; bringing up in a good way. The noun is a compound of:
    • (2a) sodate, which is tha same as (1b), above, and;
    • (2b) 成(る): na(ru): (to) become Again, the combined word has a Chinese derived reading (yu + cheng = IKU-SEI).

  • (3) 訓練(する) KUNREN (suru): a compound noun with the strong sense of training, drilling, exercising, discipline.

    The noun is composed of:

    • (3a) 訓 KUN. Some Japanese-English character dictionaries do not give Japanese readings of this word, but there are such readings, verbs such as: おしえる oshieru: to instruct, as in (1a); よむ yomu: to read; くんずる kunzuru: to read characters in a particular way. The connection with teaching comes from the verbal component. Perhaps one can imagine a Chinese drill instructor's 'stream' of 'language' (the two elements from which the character is derived, the latter possibly expletives). The interesting thing is that the Japanese 'kun' readings were probably derived after the introduction of Chinese kanji into the Japanese language.
    • (3b) 練(る) ne(ru): another term with a vast array of meanings, but with a central idea of softening, refining, or polishing. This character will appear later, under (19) RENSHUU, which is one of the terms used for aikido training.

      The combined word has a Chinese-derived reading (xun + lian = KUN-REN).

  • (4) 養(う) yashina(u): a term with a wide range of meanings: bringing up, raising, fostering, cultivating. The Chinese-derived reading (from yang) is YOU.

    When combined with KYOU (1a), the result is KYOU-YOU, a term often used to denote Liberal Arts courses in Japanese universities. Thus, I teach a few courses given under the title KYOU-YOU-TEKI-KYOU-IKU (Liberal Arts-style Education). Actually, the title does not really have a close relationship with the contents and this should be born in mind by those who would like to discern, in aikido, a special meaning in terms like 'Sensei' and 'Shihan', because of how they are made up.

  • (5) ならす narasu. In Kenkyusha's リーダーズ英和辞典, this word is not given in Chinese characters, but,
    • (5a) 馴らす (xun = JUN) which means to make a horse become accustomed to being ridden, and
    • (5b) 慣らす(guan = KAN ), which means to accustom, habituate, acclimatize oneself to new surroundings, hardships, the sounds of a foreign language etc., make the root meaning sufficiently clear.

(B) Discussion

This brief survey of the commonest words meaning 'educate' in Japanese has shown that the 'literal' sense is not so precise, especially if we rely solely on the 'constituent' meanings from which the terms have been constructed. The two elements, namely, of imparting knowledge (usually) verbally, and forming habits by repetition and training are generally combined in all cases, but with varying degrees of emphasis. Nor would it be correct to argue that KYOU-IKU is the most 'literal' meaning and all the others are 'transferred' or metaphorical in some sense. Linguistics like George Lakoff (in Metaphors We Live By and later works) have cast doubt on the idea that there is a 'literal' meaning of a word, which it originally had and which tends to occur first in dictionaries. In fact, KYOU-IKU comes first because it is in the most common use, not because it has the most literal meaning. It is also very important to notice that many of the characters which comprise the compound words given above, not only appear several times but also can be combined with others to form many other compound words. This flexibility also exists in languages like English, which do not use characters, but is expressed in another way. However, none of the characters discussed so far appears in 'Sensei' or 'Shihan'.


Instruct / Instruction / Instructor

(A) Data

  • (6) 教授 (する) KYOUJU (suru) 教授者 KYOUJUSHA. This is a compound word comprising:
    • (6a) 教え oshie: teach; see (1a) above, and;
    • (6b) 授け(る) sazuke(ru). This word combines two concepts: (1) to grant, impart, or bestow (与える ataeru), as in imparting esoteric doctrines or granting a licence to do something, and (2) to teach 教える oshieru (1a, once again). The combination has a Chinese-derived reading (jiao + shou = KYOU-JUU) and is a term which probably is closest to the base meaning of 'educate', or 'instruct', in the sense implied by Jun.

      NB. 者 SHA, is a suffix meaning one who does whatever is denoted by the characters coming before the suffix. It is not relevant to the main discussion.

  • (7) 教え(る) oshie(ru). See (1a) above.

  • (8) 教師 KYOUSHI. This compound word combines KYOU / oshie(ru), as in (1a), with:
    • (8a) 師SHI. Again, most Japanese-English Chinese character dictionaries do not give a Japanese kun reading for this word, but Kadokawa's big 大字源 Daijigen gives おさ, 'osa', meaning head or chief. The massive 大漢和辞典Daikanwa-jiten gives 'osa' as a meaning, but not as a reading. In all, 29 meanings are given in this latter dictionary and supported by extensive quotations (Vol. 4, pp.433-444). Originally the character had a military use and the meaning developed from (1) many, a multitude, to (2) army, i.e., large numbers of troops, to a military division (a specific number), to (3) a military leader, to (4) a person renowned for excellence in matters of skill, to (5) a teacher. For this last meaning the various nuances include: the teacher of a prince or noble; someone who instructs and teachers others (another Japanese term for this is 手本, tehon: to be a guide, model or pattern in whatever is being taught); someone who teaches knowledge and academic skills (知識と学問) to large numbers of people. By an interesting transference, SHI also means to learn these skills and to obey. As we shall see below, SHI, like the examples above, can be combined with other characters to add nuances to the basic meaning, but SHI has as strong a claim as KYOU to mean 'teach' in a very basic sense. The combination has the Chinese-derived (jiao + shi) reading of KYOU-SHI and means a teacher, instructor, master, mentor. In addition, when combined with TEI (弟) the first character of DESHI 弟子, disciple, it denotes the master half of 師弟, SHI-TEI, the traditional master -- pupil relationship, so powerfully expressed in Natsume Soseki's Kokoro.

  • (9) 指導 (する) SHIDOU (suru) 指導者SHIDOUSHA. A combination word from:
    • (9a) 指 yubi, which means finger, or the verb 指す sasu: to point to, and:
    • (9b) 導 michibiku: to lead by the hand. Thus, the combination has the Chinese-derived (zhi + dao) reading of SHI-DOU and means to give guidance, leadership, direction, instruction. I was once stopped by the police for speeding, but they let me off with a warning. However, the phrase the officer used was (9) 指導する, in the sense of giving guidance which it would be very unwise to ignore.

(B) Discussion

I stated above that the character 教 is combined with others to enrich or even transform the basic meaning. In the case of instructing, the added characters are 授 and 師. A completely separate set of characters is given by the compound word 指導, which seems to have a stronger element of leading by the hand and pointing out something. Some of the terms in this section do appear as terms for Japanese teaching ranks in aikido. 'Shihan' for example, is 師範, the first character of which is (8a) SHI. 'Shidoin' and 'Fuku-shidoin' are exactly the same as in (9). Shidoin 指導員 is (9) with the addition of 員, in, which means a member of some official group, whereas 副指導員 is 'shidoin' with the prefix 'fuku-' which means assistant or deputy. These terms are all used in the Aikikai to denote teaching titles.


Teach / Teaching / Teacher

(A) Data

  • (10) 教える人 oshieru hito. This is the same as in (1a) in the verb form, with the addition of 人 hito, meaning person. Thus the combination means 'a person who teaches'.

  • (11) 教師 KYOUSHI. This is a combination of (1a) and (8a) and appeared above as (8).

  • (12) 先生 SENSEI. This is a compound word composed of two characters:
    • (12a) 先, which has the Japanese kun readings of saki or mazu. It means 'before' as in, 'We have discussed this before', or 'first', as in, 'Let us discuss this matter first'. The Chinese reading is xian and the Japanese ON modification of this is SEN. As such the character appears to have two meanings: (1) departed parents, or lords & masters; (2) ancestors.
    • (12b) 生, which has a vast range of Japanese kun readings: i(kiru); i(kaesu); ikeru); u(mareru); u(mu); o(u); nama; ha(eru); ubu; ki; ha(yasu). In the Kadokawa Daijigen dictionary there are 23 meanings given, the main focus of which is life, living, birth, being born, a raw or primitive state. One of these meanings is to live. The Chinese reading of the character is sheng but the Japanese ON adaptation is SEI and also SHOU. In combination the word denotes one who was born before, or one who teaches on the basis of age and experience. Nothing is implied as to subject and methodology.

  • (13) 教育者 KYOUIKUSHA. This is a combination of KYOU-IKU (1) with 者, the character meaning 'person', which we saw in (6).

(B) Discussion

The inclusion of KYOU-SHI (11) is evidence against Jun's hypothesis that the two compound words 'sensei' and 'shihan' contain characters which do not mean 'teaching' in a basic sense. Of course, with SEN-SEI, it is the combination which has the meaning, not the constituents, but the SHI in KYOU-SHI is the same as in SHI-HAN. The HAN of 'shihan' is 範, which means a model, standard, or example.  In spite of its present, rather restricted use in aikido, SHIHAN did indeed have a close connection with teaching in general, as is seen from that fact that after the Meiji Restoration, colleges for training school teachers were not called KYOUIKU GAKKO, or KYOUSHI GAKKO, but SHIHAN GAKKO. The term is still used in the sense in modern Chinese.


With SENSEI, the situation is more interesting.

  • (i) What was the original (Japanese) meaning of the word? This is a difficult question. As can be seen from the vast range of kun readings given above, there is a whole host of cognate concepts for which both 先 and生 became labels when the Japanese language came to be written.
  • (ii) What was the Chinese-derived meaning of the word? The Chinese counterpart of the combination SEN-SEI is xian-sheng and the question asks whether the original combination in Japanese meant the same as the Chinese original. At present I lack the resources to answer this question, but my hunch is that it did, since the combination was borrowed.
  • (iii) What is the meaning in present-day Japanese? The Chinese combination of SEN and SEI, xian-sheng, does not in fact have the same meaning as SENSEI. The Chinese compound has the meaning of '-san' (Mr or Mrs), which comes after a person's name in Japanese. The Chinese counterpart of the word 'Sensei' is lao-shi (老師: old teacher), the second character of which is the SHI (8a), above, of SHI-HAN (8) and KYOU-SHI (11). So, for the Chinese, it would seem that the counterpart of a Sensei does have some 'literal' connection with teaching.

Thus, according to Kenkyusha's リーダーズ英和辞典, SENSEI does mean 'teacher', even in an academic sense, and so the Chinese version is clearer with respect to the characters which make up the word. However, the word has a wider meaning than simply a purveyor of academic facts or practical instruction. A few days ago, a neighbour in Hiroshima greeted me in the street. He used the word 'Sensei' and did so because I teach at the local university. So when he used the word 'Sensei', he meant (at least) 'Teacher'. However, doctors and politicians are also given the same title and, had he greeted them in the same way, my neighbour would not have used the title because he thought they were teachers. So, what does the word mean?

I think there are three constituent elements involved in the Japanese concept of SENSEI:

  • (i) the transmission of knowledge or skills from one person to another,
  • (ii) based on age,
  • (iii) and/or based on experience.
The Chinese characters for the word account for (ii) and probably (iii), but not immediately for (i). This probably came later, when Japanese education was transformed from a preserve of the elite in martial arts dojos, domain schools, and terakoya into a nationwide system.

The question of whether aikido is teachable is different from the question whether it is learnable. Nevertheless, one could consider the related concept of 'student'. I wonder if Jun would say the same about the common Japanese terms for aikido students, and draw analogous consequences about the nature of the teaching responsibilities that are expected. To give a similar analysis of such terms would take us well beyond the scope of this essay. However, to complete the general picture given in this essay, there are a few more terms we need to discuss which are commonly used in aikido.

(A) Data

  • (14) 弟 DESHI. This is a compound word made up of:
    • (14a) ototo, which means younger brother. The Chinese-derived reading (di = TEI/DAI/DE) added the meanings 'pupil', 'disciple'.
    • (14b) 子 ko, child, offspring. The Chinese reading is zi or ci giving SHI, SU, and the meaning is the same.

(B) Discussion

The combined word has a similar resonance to the English word 'pupil' or 'apprentice' and indicates a very close relationship with the 'master'. I have mentioned the master -- pupil relationship above. The Japanese term is SHI-TEI and the SHI is the SHI of KYOU-SHI or SHI-HAN, and clearly means 'teacher'. However, it is important to point out that the focus of the meaning of DE-SHI is the closeness of the relationship to the master, not the method of teaching involved. It is quite common to use the term to describe the relationship between a professor and his pupils, especially his graduate students. However, in this case the professor would be referred to as 'Sensei' and this is what we find in Natsume Soseki's Kokoro. Incidentally, this classic novel was written in 1914, a few years before Morihei Ueshiba opened his first dojo in Ayabe and began accepting disciples.

Note that if you put 内 in front of the word, you get 'uchi-deshi', a disciple who lives in the master's home. One person to have such a relationship with the Ueshiba family was Nobuyoshi Tamura, but Kisshomaru Ueshiba did not regard Tamura-shi as an uchi-deshi in the strict sense of the term (I learned this from a private conversation with Kisshomaru Ueshiba himself). Nevertheless, the classic Japanese SHI-TEI relationship is extraordinarily close and it lasts for life. This I have actually discovered (to my surprise and discomfort) from having deshi (i.e., Ph.D students) in Hiroshima University. Not only do I have to find jobs for these students, but also give sage advice on the choice of suitable marriage partners, if necessary doing the introductions and being the go-between at the wedding. Like the martial arts, baseball and sumo, Japanese marriage ceremonies constitute an important sub-culture, where master-disciple and sempai/kohai (see below) relationships also come into play.

I can see one example of how the deshi system works from my monthly visits to the barber. The 'Master' (TEN-CHOU, or owner: Shop Head) actually cuts my hair, but the deshi has progressed sufficiently that he does everything else, such as preparing my head for the master to display his skills, giving me a shave, trimming my moustache, massaging my shoulders, and washing the hair after the haircut, a mainly silent drama taking he best part of 90 minutes.

But the main job of the deshi is to watch in silence, as the 'Master' cuts my hair. Note also that my hair is 'gaijin' hair, apparently of a subtly ethereal quality, quite different from the normal string-like Japanese variety. So, very special attention is required. Cutting such hair needs special skills and the deshi's constant attention is even more important, as the Master navigates my head each month. The deshi has cut my hair just twice in four years, when the 'Master' was ill. He was terribly apologetic and suggested that I might like to go home and wait till Ten-chou was better. I declined. Actually, he did a very good job, but went into acute denial when I suggested that he was as good as his boss.

(A) Data

  • (15) 先輩 SEMPAI. This is a compound word composed of:
    • (15a) 先 saki, mazu. This is the same character as (12a), above.
    • (15b) 輩 tomogara, yakara. This word has the basic sense of a member of a group in whatever age, relationship, or status. There are many compounds with different nuances, all depending on the meaning of the first character. The Chinese-derived reading (bei = HAI) with SEN, gives SEN-PAI, a member of the same group but one who joined the group beforehand and is therefore senior.

  • (16) 後輩 KOUHAI. This is a compound word composed of:
    • (16a) 後 nochi, ushiro, ato, oku(reru). A word with a similar range of meanings as 先 (12a), but opposed, e.g., 'after', 'behind', 'subsequent', 'late', and:
    • (16b) 輩 tomogara, yakara. This is the same word as (15b). The Chinese-derived reading (from hou + bei) is KOU-HAI and means a member of the same group, but one who joined the group afterwards and who is therefore junior.

  • (17) 同輩 DOUHAI. This is a combined word containing the same character HAI as in (15b) and (16b), but a different prefix:
    • (17a) 同 onaji, tomo. The combined word has the Chinese-derived reading (from tong + hei) of DOU-HAI and means a member of the same group, but one who joined at the same time and who is therefore equal. However, the word is rarely used in this way. Members of a group who refer to their seniors as SEMPAI and juniors as KOUHAI would refer to their equals as:

  • (18) 同期 DOUKI. The first character of this word is the same as in (17a), to which is added:
    • (18a) 期 KI / GO, meaning 'time' or 'period". The compound word means the 'same time', but is extended to cover members of a group who entered the group at the same time.

(B) Discussion

Japan's is not the only vertically structured society that exists, but the verticality is strongly emphasized in two ways, by the pervasiveness of the SEMPAI -- KOHAI relationship, and the language in which this is expressed. When a Japanese boy starts school, he is automatically a KOUHAI to the boys above him and has to learn to treat them in a particular manner, which includes speaking to them using honorifics. This is particularly stressed in sports clubs from junior high school onwards. In university, too, he is initially a KOUHAI in whatever groups he joins and after graduation, he will join a company as a KOUHAI. These various relationships will continue through life, in the sense that his place in the group he has joined never changes. Of course, the same person might be a KOUHAI in one group and a SEMPAI in another, even in relation to the same people. This awareness of standing in a group is instilled in the Japanese from a very early age and thus, the two concepts have great importance. However, the third, DOUHAI, is rarely used, the time of joining the group being preferred over the fact of equal status in the group.

(A) Data

  • (19) 練習 RENSHUU. This is a compound word made up of
    • (19a) 練 ne(ru), train, polish, which is the same as (3b), and:
    • (19b) 習 nara(u), which has the general meaning of to learn. The combination has the Chinese-derived reading (lian + xi) of REN-SHUU and means to learn by training.

  • (20) 稽古 KEIKO. This is a compound word composed of
    • (20a) 稽 The 大字源 Daijigen gives 'kanga(eru)' and 'todo(meru)' as readings for this word. There are several basic meanings: to think or dispute, to stop, and to bow low. The Chinese-derived reading (from ji / qi) is KEI. This is combined with:
    • (20b) 古 furu(i), inishie, meaning old or ancient times. The Chinese-derived reading (from gu) is KO and the combination gives KEI-KO, which means to consider or contemplate ancient matters and by transference, to pursue scholarship, academic learning, or other training.

(B) Discussion

These two words are most commonly used to describe aikido practice. RENSHUU has the root idea of learning by training, whereas KEIKO has the central concept of investigating ancient matters and by transference pursuing learning or scholarship which has been handed down. Training in performing arts or martial skills is a later meaning. Morihei Ueshiba used both terms to designate aikido practice.

(C) Conclusions

We are now in a position to respond to the hypotheses Jun Akiyama made in his post. Jun wrote:

"Taking a look at these terms linguistically, we know that 'sensei' literally means 'born/lives before' and 'shihan' literally means 'master example'. Neither of these terms (as opposed to other terms in Japanese like 'kyoushi' and 'kyouju' contain a literal character in its terms for teaching."

Well it is true that the characters used to write SEN-SEI mean 'born / live' and 'before' when used separately and thus SEN-SEI dos not contain characters the base meaning of which is 'teach'. SHI-HAN is different, since SHI 師 does indeed mean 'teach' in a basic sense, as basic as the KYOU of 'kyouju' and 'kyoushi'.

Jun continues:

"In other words, neither the term 'sensei' nor 'shihan' connote that the person with such a title has to teach per se, but just keep doing what he has been doing. In this approach, it is the student's responsibility to learn through modeling and 'stealing' the master's teachings."

Now this paragraph is not in fact a restatement of the previous paragraph, but contains several new statements, which are not supported by the linguistic evidence. First of all, as I have suggested in the data collected above, the characters that make up a compound word, and the elements that constitute a character, have only a limited influence on the later meaning of the compound word. Thus SENSEI, despite the characters which make up the word, is in fact used to mean 'teacher', and much more besides, with as wide a spectrum of meaning and in as basic a sense as words containing characters containing the character 教え (oshie). However, SHIHAN, although one of the characters does mean 'teach' in a basic sense, in fact has a much more restricted use than 'kyouju' or 'kyoushi', being used nowadays only to denote a teacher of performing or martial arts. Thus, the idea that a 'sensei' or a 'shihan' is not a teacher in a basic sense because of the meaning of the characters which make up the word is attractive, but is not borne out by the linguistic evidence.

Secondly, the construction of the character does not always have a bearing on how the person actually does what the character means. With SHIHAN one might argue that since SHI means 'teach' and HAN means 'model' or 'pattern', a shihan is someone who teaches by being a model. However, the fact that SEN-SEI is made up of characters which have certain meanings when used separately has no bearing on how a SENSEI teaches or does not teach. Still less does it have any bearing on how students are supposed to learn. In this latter case, the argument should be based on a similar survey of the characters for 'student', 'study' and 'learn'. I believe that the evolution of the meaning of 'sensei' has much to do with the evolution of education in Japan and I suspect that in the world of aikido it might well change further, as aikido gradually loses its Japanese roots.

Jun's final comment is:

"I'm surmising that this has roots in the classical 'master -- apprentice' system, but I really have no firm basis for this."

As I explained above, one Japanese term for this relationship is SHITEI, a combination of the SHI of 'shihan' and the TEI of 'deshi'. I further argued that SHI does mean 'teach' in a basic sense. However, the classical master -- apprentice system is classical in several different cultures, and the system embraces a wide variety of disciplines.

An important point to note in this respect is that mass education is a very recent phenomenon. In ancient Greece, the sons of wealthy Athenians were taught by traveling teachers, and later also by people like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In Aristotle's school the curriculum was quite full and encompassed philosophy, disputation, and other academic subjects, supplemented by athletic training. In Europe, boys would be apprenticed to masters who would teach them literacy and other skills. The point is that the model of teacher -- pupil, the one teaching the other the skills he has learned, depends as much on the closeness of the relationship as on the particular methods the teacher uses. Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose, with subsequent (less satisfactory) movie, is a sensitive study of such a relationship.

In Japan, the sons of samurai would be sent to the domain school, where they would learn the Chinese classics under the eye of the teacher. Non-samurai children went to the increasingly common terakoya or temple schools, and were taught a similar though less demanding diet, as befitted their lower status. Learning was by rote, supplemented by lengthy explanations from the teacher, who was repeating what he himself had been taught. The lessons in the martial arts, which were sometimes given also, consisted in the mastery of complex kata. This elitism and emphasis on the Chinese classics gradually changed during the Tokugawa period and changed radically with the Meiji restoration, when Japan set itself the task of competing with the west and introduced a mass education system.

Thus, the master -- disciple relationship model is not confined to Japanese culture and does not of itself prescribe a pattern of how the master teaches. It certainly fits the Japan martial arts and might well be the most appropriate model for a subtle and complex art like aikido. But I think that the special quality of the relationship between teacher and disciple in aikido is due to a complex of factors having more to do with how the martial arts developed historically rather than linguistic features of Japanese.


References & Sources

I have used a number of sources in Japanese, including several monolingual dictionaries and the Japanese (and English) text of Natsume Soseki's Kokoro. The principal monolingual Chinese character dictionaries range from the massive 15-volume 大漢和辞典 Dai-kanwa-jiten compiled by Tatsuto Morohashi, who was a contemporary of Morihei Ueshiba, (諸橋轍次, 大漢和辞典, 2nd edition, 4th printing, April, 2001), to smaller works like the Kadokawa Daijigen (mentioned occasionally in the text), Kodansha's Shin-Daijiten, Kogakkan's Kokugo Daijiten and Iwanami Shoten's Kojien, the latter two dictionaries both general monolingual dictionaries, not Chinese character dictionaries. I have not gone into great detail about these sources here because they are not readily available outside Japan (or even outside large university libraries), but I can give complete details if requested. Two books in English which give some idea of the educational tradition which Morihei Ueshiba and his son would have inherited are: R.P.Dore, Education in Tokugawa Japan and Donald T Roden, Schooldays in Imperial Japan: A Study in the Culture of a Student Elite. This latter work gives a very interesting picture of how school students organized themselves into virtually self-governing sempai-kohai groups. This might well be relevant to a discussion of the responsibilities of students as the Japanese conceived these up to World War II, when Morihei Ueshiba and his son Kisshomaru laid the foundations of the aikido which we learn today.


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