What is Sensei 先生? Who can be a Sensei?

We all know Sensei is translated as an instructor or a teacher. The translation is correct so there is no problem there.  I receive some questions concerning the qualifications that make a person a Sensei. There seems to be some unspoken or unexplained area that brings some mystery in karate training. I do not like a mystery so I will share my understanding of what I know about “Sensei”. I hope this will be helpful in your evaluation of an instructor or search for one.

Seiza formal without background

First, let’s look at the kanji for Sensei; 先生 which may guide us to a better understanding of this term. You may remember that we examined先from Senpai.  So, 先means advance, ahead, first, early, etc. How about生? It means birth or life. Therefore, it literally means someone who was born earlier. In other words, it means a person who is older than you. It does not say anything about his age or his ability.  Interesting, isn’t it? So, the Japanese concept is that you learn from those who are older than you as they supposedly have more experience thus they are wiser from which you can learn. This must not be a surprising concept if you remember the Japanese belief of the time seniority, whether you agree or disagree.

Then, you say “OK, I am 50 years old and the instructor is only 25, only a half of my age.  Can he be my sensei?” To answer this, we have to adjust the time-table to karate time. Suppose he started his karate 10 years ago and you only 5 years ago. He is your senpai in karate.  If he is teaching a class regularly in your dojo then he is your sensei. In a dojo, the age difference does not count and the time seniority comes from when one started karate training.  If this sensei is mature enough to be respectable and able to give you a life guidance is totally another matter.

Another person asked, “My sensei is only Nidan. I thought a real sensei must be Yondan and above. How should I consider him?” My answer is “He is your sensei.” Anyone who is in front of a class and teaching is a sensei regardless of his/her dan rank. Whether he is qualified to teach (if he has a teaching certificate) or not is another matter. Besides, having a teaching license does not automatically make him a good sensei. I know a Nidan who has been that rank for over 30 years. His training and teaching experiences probably exceed those by a younger Yondan. I have seen poorly planned instruction by many senior (7 dan and 8 dan) instructors. The key is if the instructor is enthused enough to share the knowledge and the skills he own.  If you can learn something from him or her then he/she is your sensei.  If you are not learning little from him or her, you can always quit the dojo and find another dojo or sensei.

We expect our sensei to be more than someone who teaches how to punch and kick.  This is true because karate-do is more than just punching and kicking.  You are lucky if your sensei can teach you more.  Can we expect this from a sensei of 25 or 30? Some may be very matured and have many years of karate training but most of them may be too young and lack those qualities.  So do not have a wrong expectation from a young sensei. His minimum obligation as an instructor is to be able to teach the karate techniques.  This means he can explain and demonstrate those techniques.  On the other hand, not all senior or old sensei have the qualities and qualifications either.  Maturity and wisdom do not necessarily come with the age. Many of them get out of shape. If an instructor is too overweight and out of shape to demonstrate the techniques, I do not consider him as a responsible instructor.

I like what Musashi said some hundreds of years ago. He said everyone other than himself was a teacher to him. I follow his concept. My original sensei (Sugano and Asai) may be dead and gone. I believe my current sensei is everyone who comes through my life whether he is in martial arts or not. I want to learn something (good or bad) from everyone and all experiences in my life. That is my philosophy and I am not expecting the readers to agree or accept it.


How you select a sensei is totally up to you.  Each of us has different expectations and objectives from our training. I hope you have a sensei who you are happy with.  If you do not, I hope you will find one you will be happy with and can learn a lot from.

If you are a sensei in your dojo, The minimum obligation you have is to teach the correct karate techniques.  This means you need to be in shape so that you can not only explain but also demonstrate those techniques you teach. In addition, I hope you try to provide more than the karate techniques.  Many of your students are expecting this.

Shihan Yokota

  • very nice article. Elaborative.

  • Richard Overill says:

    Otagi ni re (bow to each other) is sometimes used…

  • Todd Elliott says:

    Very nice article. Thank you for sharing your insights. When we recite the dojo kun in our dojo the advanced students recite the Japanese version, but for beginner level students we recite first the English translation and then when the students get to intermediate level we recite both the English and Japanese. One thing that we have been doing for years is to give the translation for “Sensei-ni rei” as “bow to each other”. I have always felt that my students were also my teachers and I want them to know that we are learning from each other and that we must show mutual respect and courtesy. Just my two cents!

  • very nice write up, thanks for posting.

  • David says:

    Absolutely awesome post. Thank you so much for this, it has given me answers that I haven’t found before.

    Would you mind if I were to repost this, with all credits and links of course, on my website?


  • ANDREY says:


  • simon cavendish says:

    A very interesting read. I have only been practicing karate for 3 years and i was asked to be a student Senpai in my class, i have learnt a lot from teaching and assisting classes and when i have covered classes for my Sensei i have taught all that i can and tried to be the very best i could be. I completely agree with you shihan when you say that everyone can be your sensei, i take on board any advice and help i receive from all those who offer it to me, this helps me to become a better student and in turn a better senpai. I have helped students not only with their karate but also with their confidence, their fears and concerns and in any way i can help them. I live by the principle that karate should not be limited to the dojo, everything is karate, courtesy, respect, control, humility, etiquette, happiness all of these have helped me to become a better karate-ka and senpai.

    thank you for your teachings sensei


  • Richard Overill says:

    yes – I understood from one of my sensei that it means ‘one who has gone in front’, so I can learn from him because he has been there before me. I found that helpful.

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