26. Don’t call me sensei…

Sometimes I receive emails from strangers asking about training in my dojo or requesting some other piece of martial arts information. Sometimes they will address me as sensei. Most of the time, in reply, I ask them to not call me sensei. I don’t think it’s an affected fake humbleness. I’m not their sensei, their teacher. Not yet, at least. I know they mean well and wish to be respectful, but I don’t really need to be called sensei outside of the dojo.

The other reason is that I have never felt comfortable being called sensei when I know all too well that there’s a lot I have to learn about a lot of things, martial arts being one of them. True, I blog and I once put out a now-defunct magazine about Japanese martial arts and culture called Furyu a couple of years ago. I rambled on and on about a lot of things. But truth to tell, I published and wrote not because I thought I was a sensei, or knew all that much. All I thought then was that I knew enough to ask the right questions, and publishing a magazine would give me an excuse to bother a whole bunch of honest to gosh sensei for interviews so that I could pick their brains and find some answers.

Maybe it’s a part of my American upbringing, this sense of informality. I know other folk who are way high up the totem pole of koryu budo. You would think that they, of all people, would adhere the most to such protocols and terminologies. Koryu, after all, has the air of some kind of elitist, hoity-toity group of snobby people to some outsiders.

However, I’m not so sure about that stereotype. I’ve encountered worse examples of snottiness in regular karate and aikido dojo. Walk into some run-of-the-mill strip mall martial art studio, after all, and you will have people tripping over themselves to address each other as sempai, kohai, sensei, shihan, and so on. Moreover, they’ll consider it an egregious breach of etiquette if you even fail to address them by the appropriate title, such as “Joe-sempai,” or “Mary-sensei,” and so on.

Sure, appropriate etiquette and titles are fitting for a formal atmosphere. It allows for proper social conduct in a dojo. But when I met other koryu folk who were among the highest ranked Westerners outside of Japan, they didn’t care much what you called ‘em outside of the dojo. Phil Relnick is called Relnick sensei, of course, in his Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu dojo. Because of his seniority, experience and knowledge, even though I’m not in his style I sometimes call him Relnick sensei, especially in a formal setting. But when we were having lunch and he started waxing poetic about Popeyes fried chicken, he was just old Phil, the guy with a hankering for greasy food.  –Same with Meik and Diane Skoss, master instructors of several very respected koryu. If you’re acquaintances of them, they’d prefer to be called Meik or Diane most of the time, and will accept the term “sensei” usually only in the confines of a training session or in reference to their teaching.

So even when I started my own club, I told my adult students that they could call me by my given name, without the use of the term sensei. I was, I informed them, teaching “in place of” (shihan-dai) my own shihan, or master teacher. I was a substitute only given temporary approval to teach. Even as I rose in rank, I still preferred being called by my name, not my title. I think it’s an American thing, perhaps.

When I go to Japan to train, I observe the Japanese standards of etiquette in our dojo. So of course, there’s Ono sensei, Takagi sensei, Abry sensei, and so on. But even then, when we’re having some sake and dining on good food under cherry blossom trees, I inadvertently revert to calling them Kancho (for Ono sensei), Takagi san (because I knew him when he and I were students) and Antony (Abry). It’s an informal setting and it’s proper to be informal.

In fact, although the Japanese are as stick-up-the-rear-end as anybody on Earth when it comes to formality and etiquette, they do make allowances for letting your hair down and relaxing. There’s even a negative word for people who can’t break out of their formality, called kata-kurushii, or miserably-stuck-on-formality.

When I see karate or aikido students chasing after their American teachers or sempai so they can fold their hakama or carry their slippers, or slavishly following dojo etiquette to the extreme when they encounter a dojo mate outside of class, I think of it as being too kata-kurushii for me. Maybe it works in Japan with Japanese teachers. It’s expected of them in the deshi system. And there’s some very good reasons why some aikido schools will follow such rituals other than just for kowtowing.  That’s one way of learning how to fold a hakama, after all. But for me, I’d rather fold my own hakama, thank you. That way I know how the folds are and there’s no surprises when I have to put them on quickly.

I will admit, though, that lately I don’t mind as much if someone called me sensei. I think it happened when I turned 50, a couple of years ago, and I felt my body going downhill. That made me feel grouchy and…well…old. Like a grouchy old…sensei! (That, by the way, is NOT a good thing!)

Plus, I’ve taught high school computer graphics and art classes for ten years, and I’ve been teaching college classes for more than a decade now, so I could rightly be called sensei.…. Yep. Professor Muromoto, or Muromoto sensei. That sounds about right. But I’m a professor or sensei of computer graphics and art.

As far as being called a budo sensei…maybe. Being called sensei by very young students helps them to learn the proper etiquette and terminology for addressing their elders, and I’m not getting any younger as the years plod on. But they should know that showing respect is not just given by attaching titles to their instructors’ names. It’s from the heart. It’s from acknowledging their own responsibilities for maintaining, learning and teaching others in the dojo, and respect for me for trying to offer them guidelines on how to make progress in the system. Respect is not just a title. It’s a way you treat other people; your juniors and your seniors, your students and your elders.

My ranking has in fact progressed to a point where I could legitimately be called a sensei, of course. But I don’t force my students to always use that term with me. If asked why, I’d say, in all honesty, with no sense of false modesty, I still have lots to learn. “Mada mada,” is the wonderful Japanese onomatopoetic term. “Still yet, still yet…there is much more for me to learn.” So if you’re not in my club, I’d prefer that you didn’t call me sensei.

…Unless you’re in my computer graphics class, of course!

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3 thoughts on “26. Don’t call me sensei…

  1. Senpai applies for me [pushing 70]…sensei is in my opinion an over used/misunderstood term…i am acquainted w/a few true Sensei in Japan and out side the dojo they prefer ‘their family name-san’…a few guy’s i am acquainted w/here in the US love being called sensei every where…you have to be on your guard training w/these fellows.

  2. “When I see karate or aikido students chasing after their American teachers or sempai so they can fold their hakama or carry their slippers, or slavishly following dojo etiquette to the extreme when they encounter a dojo mate outside of class, I think of it as being too kata-kurushii for me”…AMEN nailed it!

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