Sensei (He who walks ahead)

It is a term used by so many but understood by so few. The standing of the teacher in Martial arts is much given creditability by the status of many of those before us who insist on being called Sensei! Some receive it because they earn it but many demand it.

So what does the term mean, what responsibilities come with this term and why do so many used it but think little of the burden that comes with this recognition? Broken down into syntax it is pronounced as “Sen-Sei”. Sen means ahead, before, in front of and Sei means living or alive. In breaking it down the understanding can be varied but I have always liked the way my teacher translated it”He who walks ahead of his students and others”.

This is relevant and denotes the profoundness of the title and what responsibility comes with it.   It is a universal word in the Japanese language and once a Sensei, always a Sensei in the eyes of the student. It is this acceptance once proved that stands the test of time in the relationship but I stress, once proved.

I have always thought that in the study of martial arts the ultimate student of the path is always the ultimate teacher. Let me explain further. A teacher should set the example by training harder than his students and setting the standard in his younger years visually and in his older years mentally and spiritually. This should always be the way and in his efforts to achieve perfection and understanding the students will recognise the true meaning of the ultimate serious student in the dojo, being he they call the Sensei. This is the one who leads by example and walks ahead of the students.

In this modern age of getting respect as fast as quick food we have seen a raising of the bar in Dan grades and the need for public recognition of who we are by rank and status. This seems more important for a growing fraternity than what we are and what we should aspire to be. When you think that in the early 80’s’when I was in Japan 5th and 6th Dan grades were rare and considered the exception rather than the rule. Nowadays the 7th, 8th 9th and 10th Dans are to be seen often everywhere. Does anyone question the validity or the origin of these lofty awards, grades? Does anyone wonder if they are worth it and what such grades should mean? Too many I can say are awarded in the meeting room or by Associations that need to keep going up to ensure those below are not restricted by elevation. Time is not a factor it would seem for many between gradings and too many hunt the grade and not the pure thought of Budo and self-perfection. In many ways martial arts has become a breeding ground for egotistic practitioners who seek recognition through status rather than by ability and deed.

There are traditionally some time minimum periods between grades and I have listed below a table to show what these are. These are as I say, minimum periods but not for every style and should never be taken as a given universally but more an indication of the old ways and time scale expectations. It is finally never how long you have been training that is the driver but how well and devoted. Many say, I have trained for 30 years, so what if they have just done twice a week and not grown and understood what Budo is! Please remember that the mouth can lie but the body never does! You can see very quickly whether someone trains or has trained much. The body never lies to the trained eye. Many call themselves the loftier ranks such as Kyoshi, Hanshi, Shihan, Soke, Kaicho and more to be distinguished from others and appear better. For a core having gained the respect from students as a Sensei is enough and from their serious personal endeavours this is sufficient. Many naturally start with grades but in the end realise they are of little consequence to them as an individual on their own journey.

It would be interesting to ask how many train every day, how many promote and build positively the heart of Budo and how many sacrifice. The Zen phrase “Loss is gain” is very poignant to the serious student and they understand quickly what this means.

Shodan2 years
Nidan3 years
Sandan5 years
Yondan7 yearsCan be called “Shidoin”
Godan10 yearsCan be called “Shidoin”
Rokudan15 yearsCan be called “Shihan”
Nanadan20 yearsCan be called “ Kyoshi”
Hachidan25 yearsCan be called “Kyoshi”
Kyudan30 yearsCan be called “Hanshii”
Judan30 yearsCan be called “Hanshii”


So what should we understand a Sensei to be? As I mentioned in Japan, it is a term used for all that are involved in the teaching practise. I have students I used to teach English too in Japan in the early 1980’s still calling me Sensei. They are unable to call me anything else and in the Japanese society structural use, can’t do. In the important ape style used in martial arts of course it is correct to use the term Sensei to your teacher but in Budo there is much that comes as a given that all should aspire to and undertake.

Key qualities are reliability, honesty, trust, respect, modesty, and the ability to take on responsibility. Modesty is a key factor in Japan and you find many who appear quiet and detached from the main hub of energy and noise but become alarmingly alive in the dojo and you realise that you have underestimated them. This is typical of the old ways of being a teacher. Speaking little but doing a lot when it matters. In Japan there is a term called “Jimi” which indicates someone who does not show off or reveal too much of his skill or ability but works and is totally committed to his craft. It also means dark and a little distant. Sensei should be seen this way but in this age of modern combat it is the exact opposite we see. This is called “Hade” in Japanese, indicating gregarious, overtly dynamic and prone to showing off. It also means colourful and bright.

Many people are attracted to the image in films showing the mystical teacher living in the mountains on his own sacrificing all to follow the path of Budo. This image draws people to the way but few are able to or ever sacrifice so much in the pursuit of perfection and belief. It is fair to say that in this modern era it is not really a requirement but it is a marker to what used to be and a marker to what serious practitioners should look for in an extreme example. We have become modern Samurai in one way but only when it is suitable to do so. For most it is not a way of life as it should be.

My image of a Sensei is one like my teacher in Japan who arose every morning at 5:30 am to train and was rarely seen without a Gi on or studying in the pursuit of Budo. I accept with all the commitments of work and family that this is difficult for most but dedicating some time to your own training daily on top of teaching is a given and must be undertaken. In this way the understanding of the personal pursuit of perfection is not lost and the understanding or endeavour and modesty is much understood. To struggle and persevere keeps you in touch with yourself, your limitations and your weaknesses. A teacher who is not afraid to show his true self is one who has come to terms with himself. This is rare in this modern age when the need to be looking good is more important than the underlying feeling of hard work, struggle and personal challenge.

How many teachers join classes and get in the lines to be drilled and work with another teacher. Many choose not too as their image will be destroyed by the vision of their inability or ineptness in doing something new or challenging. The hurdle is between both, physical weakness, as they do not train enough and mental frailty as they may not be able to comprehend or do it.

A teacher of depth will be willing to try and willing to allow himself to be seen naked in his image, just a student trying his best. I can say there is nothing more refreshing than to join a class and be free of teaching and feel the struggle to achieve. Feel the differences to that which you always do and the want of the teacher before you who pushes you to make it happen. Then when you pair up with someone you have taught, to feel the nuances and underlying elements as high repetition brings something to the front of your mind and heart.

I often do this with my good friend Dirk Heene and it is a joy to study his movements and his way. He mentioned recently when we did this that he watched me train in his lesson as he knew I watched him. There is always something to learn as a teacher.

Shingai Sensei, who is very popular with my students and has come to England several times to teach is 75 years old and yet looks like he is in his mid sixties and moves like it too. He is a true example of passion for Budo and living the life properly. To see a man like this race my students at press ups during a warm up was truly inspiring as he grinned with a boyish smile and beat us all.

Another good friend of mine, Jim Martin, is a fine example of staying and looking young, training intensely and being totally committed to Bujutsu. When I go to Glasgow to teach for him, often we get together for some “Randori Kumite” and his sparring skills are still exceptional, along with his sustainability and power.

In this day and age when for most rank and status are the initially priorities I can only recommend to serious students to seek out those that don’t espouse their level and want you to accept the teacher student relationship based on ability and understanding.

Teachers tend to come in several camps, especially as they get older. It may sound strange but it is not difficult to see and define and this should be useful for students when they are selecting the dojo to train in.

There is what I call the “Collector category” where the teacher amasses a huge volume of kata knowledge and imparts this as his way. It involves lots of bunkai as the supporting level, authentic and otherwise. Stances are predominantly traditional and low and much emphasis is placed on defence as the first element of interaction. This is an evolutionary step from Kata and its principles. As a consequence the back foot turns out quite a lot as power usage is absorbent onto the back leg before front leg usage. There is a high usage of Japanese teaching terminology.

Then there is what I call the “Fighter category” where the teacher does mainly kumite (freestyle) and pushes the students to compete. This style involves lots of fitness training with high stances and free movement in kumite. Kicks are often of the front leg and whilst kata is taught, it tends to be higher in stance and less tense. Bunkai is basic and not used as the main support. Hand mitts and pads are used for focus and speed and the use of traditional Japanese terminology when teaching is sparse. The dojo tends to be young in age with many juniors in the classes. Older students leave after the competing life is finished or become referees.

There is then the “Twilight category” where the teacher has allowed himself to reduce his effort in his dojo to train and also in his own personal training. Stature is obviously a good sign of this as those that train hard and often are in good shape with good VC capacity too. Those that do not have the visible sign are of course over weight and suffer in high repetition training. The desire to sweat in the dojo is rare and many tend to wear jewellery, especially some form of chain around the neck! These teachers once trod the boards of the dojo properly but have forgotten the way. They are keen to tell you what you are doing wrong and keen to correct you. Many will tell you what grade they are and have a penchant for title usage, such as Renshi, Kyoshi, Hanshi etc. The dojo style is mixed and much work is done by the senior grades. The structure is within the Kihon, Kata and Kumite but free style is minimal as example setting is difficult.

You will then find the “Status category”, which I have touched on already. The teachers wish to be seen as almost godly creatures and must be called a rank name at all times. They set long courses with training of 6-8 hours a day but sweat little as the training is not hard and constantly interrupted with dialogue and small sermons of what to do and what not to do. Some hide behind the badge espousing the history and deeds of the past in the style and their own martial arts lifetime. These have forgotten that martial arts are evolving and need to be progressed rather than left static and preserved only. Safety as a teacher is keeping within a limited circle and within capability. Literature is common and this supports the dojo and gives it credibility in the eyes of the student.

You will sometimes see the “Samurai category”, which are not too common these days. This is a teacher that trains hard, believes in his own destiny and uses students as his vehicle to progress. Teaching is traditional and hard with power training being a key part of the classes. He is active in the class and injuries are common, usually with the students. His structure is traditional but training rotates in the teacher needs more than the students. There is little emphasis on grading students and as a consequence students are few. Those that tolerate this are capable but a price is paid.

Then there is the “Changing category”. These teachers are not loyal to one system and constantly change the training format. Training drills are varied and the interaction with what entertains and is new is common. Many of these roam the land doing open courses and taking that which they learn to their clubs. Keeping the students entertained is paramount so a new drill or technique or a new kata supplement this requirement in their eyes. Some shift between styles changing the grading syllabus yearly and often affiliating to different groups ongoing so students are made to feel change is good even though the carousel keeps turning. It is difficult to remark on the training structure, be it modern or traditional or hard or soft. It is the fad of the moment and this is the key driver.

Whilst I have not been exhaustive on category and maybe some of you will have an affinity with some of my descriptions I could not miss out the “Banknote category”. This approach is where a teacher is competent but the sole driver is making money. Normally they are full time and it is not uncommon to have a grading for students every 3 months, merit badges for juniors and a host of additions and supplemental support initiatives which all cost. Many of these are in associations as active members in committees and like the badge and tie role. Many are also responsible for the introduction of Standing Orders and Direct Debits for training and membership fees. Alas these are all too common and enjoy the coverage in Martial Arts magazines espousing with minimal modesty how good they are and their school.

My recommendation is always for prospective students to watch a class and feel the type of school and teacher you train with. If your first choice is correct the path is walked much and the journey unfolds with honesty and clarity. Passion for training and knowledge is to the fore and the willingness to give you their time is common. This is the basis of Budo despite the modern connotations that have attached themselves to it. History teaches us the builders, Gichin Funakoshi”, the fighters “Choki Motobu” and the collectors “Kenwa Mabuni”. Know what you are entering and if your choice is right you will understand your Sensei is not just your martial arts teacher!

1 thoughts on “Sensei (He who walks ahead)

  1. Really enjoyed reading your blog Sensei. Particularly enjoyed the categorising of common types of teacher. Oh how we have all encountered most of them, some regrettably others with a sense of having gained something if not the truth!

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