One of the defining characteristics of martial arts is the fact that it’s steeped in ceremony and tradition. For the most part, students usually learn to incorporate those traditions and ceremonies into their practice of whatever art they’ve chosen. If they don’t, they soon discover that they may be better suited to something that doesn’t require all the formalities, like boxing. Or MMA.
Many modern dojos and martial arts studios are of the opinion that the pomp and ceremony is unnecessary and hinders the faster progression of students as it takes away from time that they could be training on actual techniques or drills. Those dojos couldn’t be more wrong. And yes, that may simply be one person’s opinion. But the truth is that the formalities also teach students some important aspects of discipline, routine and attention to fine detail. Such aspects are important to the integrity and proper absorption of the essence of karate. And I have no doubt the same can be said of other styles.
So how does that apply outside the dojo? And that is the question that brings us to today’s post. Is it appropriate or even REQUIRED to refer to your Sensei as “Sensei” when you meet him or her on the street? Considering that it’s a show of respect to refer to your instructor as “Sensei,” why wouldn’t you use it regardless of the environment? But some are not quite as willing to use titles outside the dojo. And in fact, some instructors aren’t comfortable having them used on them in a public setting. It reminds me of two scenarios, of opposing views. You’re probably saying, “Of course it does…”
When I started karate, all those decades ago, I spent the first few classes hiding at the very back. I copied and emulated everything I saw, but I never really had any opportunity to call on Sensei to ask any questions. This is one of the downfalls of being a beginner at the back of the class and is why it’s so important to pay attention to your white belts. But I digress… We reached a class on my second week where we all gathered at the back of dojo and were shown drills, which we’d perform all the way up the class. We’d run along the outer edge of the dojo to the back and repeat the drill.
At one point, I was unclear on the specifics of a certain technique, so when Sensei approached I got his attention by raising my hand and saying, “Excuse me, sir?” He walked over, I asked my question, he answered it and I was back in line to continue. Then as an afterthought, he added, “And when you’re in this class you call me ‘Sensei’ and nothing else. If you ever refer to me as anything else while in the dojo, it will be a hundred push-ups.” Then he walked away. I was mildly taken aback, but it had the required effect. It’s over 32 years later, and I’ve never called him anything other than ‘Sensei’ unless I’m referring to him to somebody outside the martial arts environment.
On the flip side, one of the senior belts who used to teach in Sensei’s absence was usually referred to as “Senpai,” which is a term for “instructor” or the like. I saw the guy at a local grocery store the one day and when we saw each other, I called out “Hey, Senpai…” He paled and quickly hushed me by saying, “Man, quiet down! We’re not in the dojo…” I felt as though he was embarrassed by it. To each their own, I guess. My students consistently called me Sensei regardless of the environment. It’s been almost fifteen years since I had to shut down my dojo to move out to Saskatchewan, and I STILL have some old students who will call me Sensei when they see me. As a sign of respect, it’s kind of nice.
Either Sensei, Sifu, Master or whatever title may be associated to the lead instructor of your school or dojo, it may take some feeling out as to how you’ll refer to them outside the dojo. They may also have a preference in regards to how they’d like to be addressed. Personally, I don’t believe it should be embarrassing if a student refers to an instructor but their title outside the dojo. After all, if you’re in some sort of team sport the safe bet is you’ll likely say, “Hey, Coach!” if you see your coach out in public. Sensei should be no different. ☯