New students are usually interested in learning correct dojo etiquette and sometimes ask about how to use the term “sensei” properly.
The word basically means “teacher” or “mentor” and applies to any black belt teaching a class as well as to the senior instructors in a dojo.
In Japanese, it is not a title, like “doctor.” A Japanese speaker would not identify himself or herself as “sensei,” since it is relative. To some people, I am sensei… to many others, I am “kohai,” or junior. It is not a word you can use about yourself.
The term conveys the idea that someone has been around longer than you have and knows a lot more about a particular subject than you do. By calling someone “sensei,” you are showing respect and asking them to help you.
When people first started calling me “sensei,” I was uncomfortable. I associated the word with my teachers – and I was nowhere near their level. Eventually, I came to accept it as a request for help from my juniors… the people who called me “sensei” were asking for instruction. The people who did not, were not. In fact, I still dislike being called “sensei” by my partner during practice at seminars. I am not there to teach, but to learn.
The instructor of a class should always be referred to as “sensei” on the mat… if you do not respect him or her enough to do that, you should not be in the class. If you are speaking to a high-ranking teacher from another dojo, please call him or her “sensei” as well, to show respect. (If you are not sure who these people are, ask!)
We tend to be a bit informal in our dojo, and I consider many members to be my friends. I do not want to stand too much on ceremony.
So, here is the rule: If you see me wearing a gi, on or off the mat, call me “sensei” (or refer to me as “sensei” if you are talking with someone else). If I am wearing street clothes and we are having a conversation, call me “Jim.” When in doubt, use “sensei.”
As well, do not think of “san” as the equivalent to “sensei.” For a Japanese person, “san” means only that they are speaking politely, perhaps to an equal or subordinate. “Jim-san” is merely a slightly more polished way of saying “Jim.”