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The Not So Simple Sensei

Although both terms mean ‘teacher’, the differences can be clearly seen by looking at the kanji that make up the word 先生.

By 3 min read 5

Recently, I was reading an article about the Japanese rock gods 非常階段(ひじょうかいだん). One of the interesting things I found out about this band was that they are often referred to as the ノイズの大先生 (The renowned teachers of noise). This seemed really strange to me, after all, doesn’t 先生 mean ‘teacher’?

Watching clips of them on Youtube as they create bizarre soundscapes of distorted noise while a dancer writhes in front of the band, it is hard to imagine anything further from the traditional image of a teacher.

Lessons from the School of Rock

This confusion is mostly due to the difference in the subtle difference between a 先生(せんせい) and a 教師(きょうし) in Japanese.

Although both terms mean ‘teacher’, the differences can be clearly seen by looking at the kanji that make up the word 先生. The first one 先 is usually found in words that indicate something happened before something else such as in:

先頃(さきごろ) ー The other day
先月(せんげつ) ー Last month
(さき)に ー Earlier than

The second kanji 生 is found in verbs like:

()む ー To give birth
(しょう)じる ー To generate

Therefore the word 先生 could be thought of meaning the person who was ‘born first’. In this case, meaning that the person’s age or education predates yours. If you compare this to the word 教師 which is made up of the kanji for ‘education’ and ‘expert’ respectively, the differences become apparent. One refers to seniority; the other to expertise.

Therefore the use of 先生 extends far beyond the typical fields that we would expect. The word can be attached to learned people’s family names to respectfully acknowledge that the person knows about a particular field. This usage can show the difference between cultures as in Japan, lawyers, accountants, politicians and medical specialists are all 先生. This is especially important in hospitals as it can cause offense to not refer to a doctor as 先生.

Of course, the word 先生 is most often added after a teacher’s family name as a form of respect. Interestingly, the title is more important than the name and it is perfectly acceptable to omit their name and simply say 先生 by itself. The only time it is wrong to refer to a teacher as a 先生 is during self-introductions. It is considered a serious faux pas to refer to yourself as a 先生, instead it is better to use 教師 and leave the honorifics to your students.

Mr. Miyagi

While Mr. Miyagi sticks out in most people’s minds whenever they think about the movie Karate Kid, Daniel would have likely called Mr. Miyagi ミヤギ(sic)先生 in real life. As teachers of their techniques, most masters of martial arts expect that the title 先生 will be attached to their name. Unfortunately for students of these styles, there are plenty of stories of people being forced to exercise to exhaustion for forgetting to use 先生 appropriately!

As religion also has seniority, it is perhaps unsurprising that 先生 is also found in most religions in Japan.

A famous example is the ever-controversial 池田大作先生(いけだだいさくせんせい), the founder of the largest Buddhist organization in Japan. It is rare to see his name written without the 先生 even by his numerous critics. Even the legendary Buddhist philosopher 親鸞(しんらん), who dedicated a significant part of his life to living a humble life and referred to himself as ignorant (using the archaic word 愚禿(ぐとく)), is still referred to as 先生.

Not all sensei are born equally and, to distinguish between the various levels of the word, the term 大先生(だいせんせい) also exists. This may also be abbreviated to a simple 大 in the middle of someone’s name. Most people encounter this for the first time in the title 駿(はやお)大先生 which refers to the animator 宮崎駿 (みやざき はやお) who created such beloved characters as Tottoro, Kiki and Moro.

Obviously 大先生 are a lot less common than regular 先生 and the title is only given to legendary people in a particular field. How legendary? Well, you have to reach the status of undisputed masters such as mangaka who invented Akuma-kun 水木(みずき)しげる, the master of ghost stories 京極夏彦 (きょうごく なつひこ) or the record-breaking horse race champion 柴田善臣 (しばた よしとみ) to earn this title.

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  • StephenZevon says:

    I was curious how this could be translated into English when 先生 doesn’t mean an actual teacher.

    The following is from a song. Context: In a letter to a (now famous) manga artist, the person starts of their letter saying this:

    ミドリカワさんお久しぶりです。Mr. Midorikawa, It’s been a long time.
    いやもう先生と呼ぶべきですね。Or I should call you X shouldn’t I?

  • swdw says:

    Actually,
    Sensei translates better as “One who has gone before”. That gives the
    word a whole lot more meaning than simply teacher. The problem is that we try to do a word for word translation rather than convey the true meaning of the word.

  • maulinator says:

    Writers, lyricists and manga artists also receive the title of sensei. Rakugo-ka (especially the elder master) might also receive the title of sensei. Professional practitioners of ikebana and sadou, and calligraphers also receive the title of sensei. Not disciples but ones who no longer need instruction.

  • maulinator says:

    I have always hated the use of sensei when it comes to politicians and when I have meetings with them always piss them off by not addressing them as sensei. They are elected officials and deserve no more respect than any other civil servant. I am all for calling them by their elected title but not sensei which imparts a level of respect I do not have for them. They usually have to grin and bear it because they are usually coming to me for help. I probably won’t be able to run for office anytime soon, as I do not respect these people the way they want to be, so I would not get their support. If you are elected you are working for the people, so you are not above them, and that kind of attitude is dangerous when serving the public.

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