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“Sensei” is a Japanese honorific which is roughly equivalent to “gentleman” or “Mr.” in English, although the Japanese refer to both men and women as “sensei.” This honorific is used as a mark of respect to someone who is regarded as a teacher, mentor, or authority. Practitioners of art forms native to Japan may address their instructors as “sensei,” whether or not their teachers are Japanese.
This term can mean “teacher” or “master.” Lawyers, doctors, and teachers are addressed with this honorific, and the term is also used to describe someone who has achieved a high level of skill in the arts, or someone who is regarded as an authority on an art form such as music, dance, painting, or poetry. Many skilled artists and artisans in Japan are also teachers, making the term especially appropriate. In disciplines such as martial arts and religious practice, this term is used to refer to high ranking individuals and instructors, and the most widespread use of this honorific outside of Japan is in martial arts, where people refer to an instructor or mentor as a sensei.
Japan has a culture with many very complex social rules and conventions which govern the use of terms such as “sensei,” in addition to regulating rules of behavior. Honorifics and other marks of respect are very important to many Japanese, especially to older people and people from more traditional families.
Travelers in Japan should take note of how people are introduced and how they are addressed by others. If a visitor is introduced to “Sensei Natsume,” for example, he or she should use “Sensei” or “Sensei Natsume” when addressing this person, unless invited to do otherwise. Following the model of other people will make a positive impression on Japanese hosts, smoothing social interactions. This makes it much easier to do business in Japan, or to get an opportunity to access uniquely Japanese experiences which may be shown to outsiders with great reluctance.
Achieving the honor of being called a sensei usually includes rising to a level of high social status, but not everyone in a socially powerful position is a sensei. For example, businessman who head up major corporations are treated with respect, but they are not considered senseis. Many Japanese people are also very sensitive to the use of the term in reference to popular public figures. The term may also be used with a note of sarcasm in some cases, to indicate that someone has an overblown personal opinion of him or herself.