Thursday, January 06, 2011

Titles, Bowing and other Lunacy

I called my first karate instructor by his first name, as did everyone else. Later, when I began traditional studies elsewhere, the Japanese title of sensei was conveyed. Sensei is an honorific term designated for instructors who hold the rank of at least sandan (3rd degree black belt), and this is the way it should be. Junior instructors should not be referred to as sensei, even if the top brass isn't around. But the lower ranked yudansha (black belt holders) have achieved something special, so they deserve some recognition. When addressed, Mister or Miss or simply "sir" gets the job done. I don't like the title of sensei to be thrown around.

One school I trained at had the annoying policy of calling anyone with a black belt sensei. I really hated that. As a young shodan (1st black belt) I had no inclination to teach and as such I didn't feel I should be afforded the title. Furthermore I felt this practice took away from the legit instructors that actually earned and deserved this distinction. But it gets worse. If said yudansha walked into the dojo during the course of a class, it was understood that everyone had to stop what they were doing - regardless of whatever that was - and perform a "courtesy bow" to the exhalted black belt "sensei." I kid you not. The first time this happened to me I actually turned around to see if some big shot was walking in behind me. Naturally I failed to bow back to the class, much to the chagrin of the chief instructor, but I respectfully protested. "Sir, why do you call all the black belts 'sensei'? I'm really not comfortable with that. 'Mr. Vesia' would be fine."

"No, no... we call the brown belts 'Mister.' It's all to show respect, Sensei John."

It didn't stop there. At the end of class we would all line up to bow to a portrait of Shimabuku (our founder) hanging on the wall. Then the most senior student present bows to the instructor. The whole class bows. All fine and good. This is the stock ritual most Isshinryu dojo are accustomed to. But this place took it further. Now the sempai (seniors) were then required to bow to the juniors uttering "skit skit kohai ni rei". And of course the newbies had to return the favor ("skit skit sempai ni rei"). I must've bowed 10,000 times during my brief stay at this school.

To top it all off, the chief instructor of said school who had been campaigning for a long awaited promotion to 5th dan ended up driving away almost all of his students when he began to exhibit bizarre behavior, culminating in a divorce, the closing of his school and other personal disasters I'd rather not go into. Becoming a shihan was the beginning of the end for this guy, who became so identified with his persona as a martial arts master that it drove him crazy. We sempai, kohai, sensei and even various renshi could only helplessly watch this onetime decent karate instructor completely lose it, both psychologically and professionally.

I think respect and titles are an important and even necessary feature in traditional martial arts. But when they become the pursuit of self-aggrandizement or to bolster the status of certain students it can only lead to trouble.

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Blogger Rick Matz said...

Unfortunately, martial arts draws more than it's fair share of psychos.

9:50 PM  
Blogger Sue C said...

This is an interesting article. You assign the title 'Sensei' to rank i.e 3rd dan. Though I agree that sensei can be an overused/inappropriately used title it does actually mean 'the one who went before' and is therefore not necessarily attached to rank. Though traditionally reserved for students who have at least reached black belt I feel it is a title that should be attached to actions rather than rank i.e. if a black belt is covering the class for the senior instructor then for that period of time he is sensei. When he joins in the class as a student he is no longer sensei and shouldn't be addressed as such. I don't think just showing a fellow student how to do something is sufficient for them to be called sensei but leading the whole class for the entire session probably is. IMHO I think one has to actually be in the act of teaching to be called sensei and not just hold a certain rank.

6:53 AM  
Blogger BSM said...

Interesting and sad. Related: My old Tae Kwon Do teacher had a related experience. Not so much with titles but with personal tragedy. One of his first teachers became addicted to gambling and eventually lost his school.

The good news? All the students and seniors re-formed the school. It latter grew into a collection of schools that, to this day, still promotes many black belts (me included).

At the end of the day martial artists are very human indeed!

8:18 AM  
Blogger Michele said...

Interesting post.

We do not use the title Sensei in our dojo. The black belts are called Mr/Mrs. The only person who was called Sensei was Grandmaster Seikichi Odo.

I was told this story by a karate friend about a dojo she visited. There was a long hallway/stairway with several pictures of the dojo owner/chief instructor lining the path. Students were required to stop and bow at each photo.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Charles James said...

Hi, John SENSEI! hehehe

It does tend to get a bit ridiculous:

Dai Sensei [senior sensei of dojo]
Dojo-cho [head of the dojo; ownership role]
Kyosei [student teacher; sho-dan and ni-dan usually]

Sensei [Teacher or mentor; one who is ahead of you in life. Signifies teacher or master. A word used to express one's respect or admiration. A little hackneyed nowadays.]

Sensei ni rei [bow to teacher]
Sensei ni tashi [face the teacher]

Shodai [first generation students of founder of system]

Uhu-bushi [Honorific term for one who was the greatest among certain styles.]

Waka-sensei [young teacher] which seems like a misnomer since sensei is one who is ahed of you in life, etc.

Joseki ni rei [bow to hight point of dojo]

Otaigai ni rei [bow to each other]

Sempai ni rei [bow to senior practitioner; not the sensei]

Shinzen ni rei [bow to the kamidan or from of dojo]

Yes, I too have attended dojo that have utilized all the above and sometimes stuff I have never experienced in my entire life.

Thanks, well done post John!

11:12 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...


That's been my experience too.


You assign the title 'Sensei' to rank i.e 3rd dan.

No, not by the likes of little ol' me. Most traditional karate styles use this method (on Okinawa it's 4th dan, I'm told).

...if a black belt is covering the class for the senior instructor then for that period of time he is sensei.

This is strictly policy, of course. It's the chief instructor's call to allow this. When I trained briefly in aikido this is exactly what they did. And this place was very traditional.

I think one has to actually be in the act of teaching to be called sensei and not just hold a certain rank.

Strangely it can go the other way too. There was this Shorin-ryu school near me I used to drop in on occasionally (again, very traditional). There was a student there - a 4th dan - not a sensei or teacher at all, yet was still considered a renshi (young master). Go figure.

Now there are exceptions to the rank dilemma. If a 2nd dan opens a dojo it would be a bit silly to adhere to the traditional method. I agree that s/he deserves to be called Sensei, nothing less. The flip side of the coin is that I've trained at places that had 3rd - 6th dan assistant instructors that actively ran classes who were never called Sensei; that distinction was reserved for the chief instructor. (Check out Michele's comment for more on this.)

To sum up Sue, I believe as a general rule that to earn the title of Sensei (to reiterate, an honorific term not to be lightly taken) one should have been actively teaching for quite a while after achieving black belt. And that typically means sandan or better.


That's great that the students did that. That is indeed rare. I'm guessing this teacher didn't even realize what a good bunch of people he had under him. What a shame for him.


We do not use the title Sensei in our dojo. The black belts are called Mr/Mrs. The only person who was called Sensei was Grandmaster Seikichi Odo.

Really. But Odo Sensei has passed on, no? What about now? Nobody goes by sensei, or is it by Hanshi or Kyoshi, etc.? How do you address your instructor?


How about dai ichi (#1 student)? Hanshi, Kyoshi and Renshi usually denote a certain BB rank (starting at 4th or 5th dan). There's also Shihan (teacher of teachers), O'Sensei and even O'Shihan.

Thanks for the rundown on bowing expressions and rank, Charles. Some of them are definitely new to me.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

I address my instructors as Hanshi and Kyoshi.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Roushiichi said...

(^^)Being raised in Japan, bowing was the norm in daily life, not just in the Dojo, so there were no transitional confusion or cultyral dilemas. It is intersting to note that there have been lawsuits with regard to bowing here in United States. The ones that I am aware were by Judokas. The most recent suit was in Seattle.
Bowing is almost an art in itelf.
The degree of angle changes with the situation. Age difference, seniority in work/activity, social position, customer serivice all have parameters in ther way we bow.
A very interesting world.
In martial arts, the number of bows seem to differ by Dojos. My personal experience in Okinawa and Japan Dojos, the norm was three bows at the beginning and end of training. Shizen ni, Sensei or Shihan ni and otagai ni.
There was clear distinction between Senpais and Senseis. Senpais being anyone who started training at the Dojo before you regardless of rank. Senseis were usually yondan and above. Some Dojos had Shodans through Sandans as Shidoins. Titles are numerous.
Not to worry, titles are confusing in Japanese and to the Japanese themselves even outside of martial arts.
Shuseki, Joseki, Torishimariyaku, Shachou, Shingikan, Daihyo. etc....
I had an interesting time translating my position into Japanese as it definitely affected the pecking order in terms of business. (^^)

1:34 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

OK, thanks Michele.

Welcome aboard Roushiichi.

It is intersting to note that there have been lawsuits with regard to bowing here in United States. The ones that I am aware were by Judokas.

Lawsuits for bowing. Only in this country (I hope).

I remember when I was in college watching this documentary on Asian culture. In one segment a pair of modern-day Japanese gentlemen are shown bowing to each other in public -- numerous times, in fact. If one bowed deeper on a subsequent bow the other man - not to be outdone - the other man would then bow just as deep, and so on.

Mind you, this wasn't a dramatization and it had nothing to do with dojo etiquette, though one can see how these practices made their transition to the martial arts.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Adam said...

Interesting. The titles and honourifics are there for the system or style or whatever you want to call the organisation. They keep the order. It is a very military system, but mixed in with cultural practises as well. In both the military/LE world and the martial arts world, egos can swell enormously for the title holder where instead it is supposed to instil respect by the student/subordinate for the teacher. This is not always the case... Is it really necessary in the west? For a western based system such as boxing, wrestling or an RBSD system, should the instructors and founders be called sergeant or corporal or Colonel or sir? Or should they just show normal respect and use their actual names??

11:00 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...


For a western based system such as boxing, wrestling or an RBSD system, should the instructors and founders be called sergeant or corporal or Colonel or sir?

You can't go wrong with "sir."

On a related note, think about this analogy: sensei-student vs. boxing coach-fighter. Actually these relationships are quite different. It's a cultural/philosophical thing with the martial arts, something that doesn't really exist with boxing, wrestling or whatever. Also, you really don't see swelled egos with boxing trainers, in part, because unlike MA instructors they're not considered practitioners anymore. Probably similar with wrestling coaches. Trainers in RBSD (including submission-style wrestling) is likely more akin to traditional MA, though I'm not really sure.

Angelo Dundee, the legendary boxing coach, used to call some of his fighters "son." For him his role as a trainer was more paternal than militaristic, though I doubt anyone in his stable had the temerity to call him "Pop."

[Note to readers: RBSD = reality based self defense. I had to google that one, I had no clue.]

12:00 AM  
Blogger The Barefoot Lawyer said...

I will always call my "Sensei" as such. But I remember that he is also human.

4:23 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Hi Tracy.

"Great teachers also have their share of human foibles. Often they are effective precisely because they are so human..."

- John Welwood, from Toward a Psychology of Awakening

4:59 PM  
Blogger Perpetual Beginner said...

Interesting. Our dojo does call all the black belts "Sensei" (including me, as a shodan of about 18 months standing). But otherwise we're generally quite informal. It may have something to do with the pretty intensive teaching requirements Sensei has. I taught my first class back as a go-kyu (emergency conditions), and taught classes with some regularity for nearly three years before my black belt promotion.

I'll also note that if a student is referring to me or to the other black belt (a sandan), it's always qualified with our name. If they say just "Sensei" it always means our dojo owner and senior instructor.

1:53 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Thanks for your input, PB. And congrats on your shodan, albeit belated. It's been a long time.

10:40 AM  

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