Getting a sense of “sensei”

Mina-san, hajimemashite! Koh-sensei desu. Yoroshiku onegai shimasu!

Hello all! My name is Koh-sensei, and welcome to my column! I will be sharing all sorts of tidbits about Japan from language to culture every month, so do drop by for a read as and when you feel like it!

The meaning of “Sensei”

For my inaugural piece, I’d like to talk about the word “sensei”, seeing as how it is part of my moniker. Most of you who have some knowledge of Japanese understand the word to mean “teacher” – and by “teacher”, some of you might have this image, perhaps because of your own schooling experiences:

Some of you who are (or were) taking lessons at any of the numerous language schools around the island might also be referring to your Japanese teacher by this term, and thus be very familiar with it! Some of you, on the other hand might also know it from the opening line to Natsume Souseki’s famous novel “kokoro”:

“I always referred to that person as Sensei.”

However, did you know that “sensei” does not necessarily always refer to “teacher”? A quick search on an online Japanese dictionary gives the following definitions:

  1. Someone who teaches knowledge, skills and the arts etc, especially those who belong to a school.
  2. A term of respect used to refer to people like teachers, professors, doctors and lawyers who are well-versed in scholarship and are in a position where they can lead/guide people.
  3. A term of endearment or of jest used to refer to others.
  4. Someone born earlier than one is. The elderly.

Other meanings of “Sensei”

Those who understand “sensei” to mean “teacher” are therefore familiar with the first meaning of the word, but the second meaning is also used very widely in daily life. It is what I would call a doctor when sitting in their clinic and seeing them for some ailment, or when addressing an esteemed speaker at a talk before I ask my questions.

Some of you might have heard this term in medical dramas before and wondered why the patient is referring to the doctor as such – hopefully now you understand why!

The term “sensei” is used when speaking to others and addressing them – some of you, then, might be asking why I am referring to myself with this term. Quite simply, it is because my students know me by this, and I find it quite catchy! I am, in all senses of the word, a “sensei”, especially when I stand in front of the classroom every day and try to teach my students Japanese, with a huge emphasis on the word “try”.

Koh sensei teaching his students
How I think I appear to my students. (I hope reality is less bleak……) 
(Image credit: irasutoya)

“Sensei ” is used as a term of respect for people whom you deem as being more knowledgeable – the next time you encounter someone who awes you that way, try referring to them with this and see how they react!

About the author

Loves cats, music, and alcohol. Dedicated to spreading the good word of Japanese and Japanese culture! 猫と音楽とお酒が大好きです。日本語と日本文化についていろいろ教えちゃいます!