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Avoiding First Names

It is very difficult to establish a student/teacher relationship, particularly with Japanese or Okinawan Sensei, if the student refers to the Sensei by his first name.

Assume that a prospective student says, "Hi Bill (or Kenji or whatever), I want to be your student."

If the student is inexperienced, the Sensei might overlook it. Hopefully a senior student will instruct the student how to properly address the Sensei.

But if the student has martial arts exprience, the Sensei might assume that he is rude, or possibly that he has been poorly trained.

Remember, once a student addresses his Sensei by his first name, it will be difficult. It is something to be avoided.

Even if your Sensei is very liberal -- perhaps he is non-Japanese and does not follow strict formalities -- you have to be careful when seniors from Japan or Okinawa visit. Suppose a 10th dan visits. You would not want to go up to him and say, "Good to meet you Sam!"

Sensei Zenko Heshiki taught for many years in New York. He told me that many new students would call him "Zenko." So after a while, when a new student would ask him what his name was, he would say, "Sensei." That way the new students would call him "Sensei" (even if they thought that Sensei was his first name).

All my students would address me as Sensei. They would also address my friends, who are sensei, as Sensei. For example, they would address my friend and senior, Sensei Pat Nakata, as "Sensei" or "Nakata Sensei." If I ever heard one of my students address Nakata Sensei by his first name, I would get pretty upset.

The same goes for my friend, Sensei Gary Omori, who teaches Aikido. The art does not matter. Since he is my friend, and is a Sensei, my students would address him as such.

Also, if one of my students addressed one of my friends inappropriately, this would reflect very negatively on me. It would make me look like a poor instructor.

I am not very interested or impressed by titles. "Sensei" is not looked upon as a high title by many people. They would rather be called "Soke" or "Master", or whatever. But Sensei is a special title to me, because it is an expression of respect for someone who teaches. To some extent, it is a term of endearment.

So please be very careful about how you address instructors.

I should add that I will sometimes refer to my friends' senior students as "Sensei", even if they are not the head of their own dojo. This is because they are senior to me in terms of training. How can I call my senior by his first name? So I might use "Sensei" or avoid the use of a name. Such seniors will generally tell me that they are not "Sensei", but that is OK with me. I am using the term as a sign of respect for a senior.


Charles C. Goodin