The Title Sensei
When I was learning Karate, this word had a lot of significance. I remember for my 10th birthday my instructor took a good friend of mine, Maiko, and I out to get lunch at Pizza Hut. Sitting at the table, I still continued to refer to her as Sensei. I don’t remember ever being told I had to, but it felt right. At the time, I was convinced she knew everything there was to know about the world.
Later in life I started getting addressed by that term, and it was a bit strange. One of the things that made me uncomfortable was being called Sensei Kruczek by strangers on this site. I am turning 22 in a few weeks – having people in their 40s (my biggest demographic) call me anything with a title was weird. Someone later pointed out that titles like “Sensei” are honorary in nature and referring to myself as “Sensei Kruczek,” as many people do on YouTube, would be very arrogant. On the other hand, if people were calling me by that name, he suggested that I take it as huge compliment and think nothing of it.
Sensei of What
That title of Sensei is not unique to Karate. It is a term that is used in Japanese education to refer to teachers and in Buddhism to refer to a spiritual leader, among other things. When attending the Buddhist service, I refer to the lady leading it as Sensei Sarah (as does almost everyone else). What do I mean when I call her that though? Clearly she isn’t someone I look to for advice on Karate matters. She is a “teacher” of Buddhism, and very well versed on the matter. In the same manner, I tend to be decently knowledgeable on Karate matters, but am not the person to turn to for advice on medical matters. The term Sensei is both honorary, and specific to a subject.
What is a Sensei Qualified to Advise On
Matt over at Ikigai Way had an article a while back on How to Be a Good Martial Arts Teacher. One of the things he hits on is the idea that a good teacher does not know everything in the world. Two hundred years ago this may have been the case. People might have looked to a Sensei for advice on Karate, farming, and raising their children, but in the modern times it is best to look to an expert in the field of concern and leave Karate instructors to teach Karate.
Most Karate instructors are very knowledgeable in their art. I have met plenty who are even rather knowledgeable in other arts. One instructor I trained under briefly was also a doctor in developmental education, and another was a chiropractor. There are others who are lawyers, writers, and craftsmen. Most are happy to share both their skills in Karate and outside of it, but their qualifications for the other art lie outside of Karate and the title Sensei gives them no credibility in those things.
Hopefully this gives a better understanding of what a Sensei is and what it is not. Karate instructors tend to be very knowledgeable and you can gain a lot from listening to them about things both related and unrelated to Karate. Just keep in mind that if it isn’t related to Karate, they are just another person with an opinion and all their awesome Sensei powers are meaningless.