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What does sensei (先生) mean?

What does sensei (先生) mean? Does it mean “martial arts teacher”? You may remember Daniel san in The Karate Kid, and his teacher Mr. Miyagi, whom he respectfully addressed as Miyagi Sensei, or simply Sensei. But, Sensei means more than just “martial arts teacher.”

Sensei is a mode of address–it’s placed after the last name, and it is used when addressing teachers, martial arts teachers, doctors, and politicians. So, in some ways it’s similar to saying “professor” or “coach”or “doctor” before the person’s last name. In the case of politicians, we sometimes say “the honorable” before the person's name in formal situations. Sensei has very wide use in Japanese.

Sensei is placed after someone’s last name. For example, Professor Einstein would be called, アインシュタイン先生 (Ainshutain Sensei). Bruce Lee the martial artist and martial arts teacher would be called, ブルース・リー先生 (Burūsu rii Sensei). Dr. Seuss, American Children’s author (if he were really a doctor) would be called ズース先生 (Zūsu Sensei).

Sensei means many things including, teacher, professor, doctor (medial and otherwise), and the different modes of address we use with politicians or judges, similar to “The Honorable.” The meaning differs depending on the context, and it definitely doesn’t only mean, “martial arts teacher.”

The kanji characters used to write sensei (先生) actually come from China, where they are pronounced, xiānsheng (先生) in Mandarin, meaning teacher, husband, doctor, or Mister (Mr.), with that last meaning being the most common. The individual characters in themselves in Japanese and Chinese mean, “first” (先) and “born” (生). This makes sense if you think about it. Teachers, professors, doctors, etc, usually have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom because they have been around longer; they were born first.

Either way, when you see the term Sensei (先生), now you know it’s just a respectful term students use to address their teachers, so Stout Sensei (スタウト先生) just means Mr. Stout or Professor Stout. I’ve taught over 1,000 students and this is what they’ve called me, so that seems like a fitting name for my website for teaching Japanese. But stay tuned, there’s always a chance someday I’ll learn and teach martial arts too! Hi-Yah!


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