称号 Shogo- Titles
This essay is a slightly modified version of one that appears in the recent update to the
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo Gakusei Benran 学生便覧 (student handbook)
Displays of deference have, from time immemorial, served as a means to reduce the friction of interpersonal interaction. This was particularly critical in feudal societies, but examples carry through to our modern era; to imply through behavior or speech that one thinks oneself more important, experienced, skilled, etc. than the person with whom s/he is speaking, can, in itself, be perceived an insult. Here in America, introducing oneself using honorifics may not receive a second thought; in Japan, however, it is a faux pas that will lead listeners to assume that the speaker is, at best, too young (in practice), inexperienced (at relating to humans IRL), insecure, or mentally deficient to be taken seriously; at worst, it's a quick way to catch a beating. To that end, introducing oneself as "Nani-Nani Sensei (or worse yet, "Sensei Nani-Nani*") is a fairly easy error to avoid- just don't do it!
Sensei. O Sensei. Waka Sensei. Renshi. Shihan. Hanshi. Sempai. Kohai. Iemoto. Soke. Japanese traditions are rife with titles, most of which suffer from severe misuse. What those words mean and how they are used matter, especially if you are expected to use them as forms of address.
Very few Japanese words are as widely known and carry more portent (and baggage) for English speakers than, 'Sensei'. Most simply, it comprises two kanji (non-phonetic Chinese ideographs used in Japanese) 先 sen, and, 生 sei. Sen means before and appears in many compounds, including Sen no sen 先の先 (initiative of initiative- a timing concept) and sente 先手 (before hand- an attack, attacker, forestalling or making the first move). Sen carries an idea of leading, in part because the kanji represents a person (two legs on the bottom) coercing a cow (legs and horn on top)- implying that rather than contend directly with a physically stronger animal, the human compels the cow or bull along by the horn or nose. The notion at its essence is that the power of intellect, experience, and tools can overwhelm and control brute force.
Sei (or Sho) 生is existence. Together, they make born or existing before... that's it. Someone whom you respect (without regard to the field of endeavor) or whose counsel you seek might be called, "Sensei." On a film set, the director is, Sensei, in a kitchen, it is the chef. Dentists, researchers, lawyers, and school teachers can all be Sensei.
Okay, you may be saying, but what about O Sensei- that's almost always translated as 'Great Teacher,' so that's on the level, right? Well... no. O Sensei (大先生/翁先生) doesn't imply awesomeness- it's a means of clarification. When folks of the same family name (usually father and son, but it can/has been otherwise) work in the same field, keeping straight which 'Jones Sensei' you mean can be a hassle. Add Waka 若 (young) to Sensei and it's no longer in doubt that one is talking about the junior relative. Same with adding大 (large) or 翁 (old) "O" to Sensei, you aren't saying, 'most beststest teacher evah,' you're simply being clear that you mean the elder 'Jones'.
Sempai 先(before) 輩(generation/companion) points to someone (or ones) senior to you, but, perhaps, not in quite as august a role as sensei. It's been suggested that while the term sempai is clearly applicable to anyone with more experience, it is ideally used only for the person or people whose influence you feel strongly enough to want to follow around like a duckling trailing its mom.
Kohai 後輩 (rear generation/companion) is also a relative term, but one that is not ever used as a form of address. To refer to younger students, diminutive honorifics are used (for boys, family name or occasionally, given name, followed by 君 [kun]; for girls, family name, then ちゃん [chan], as opposed to family name, さん[san]).
Shogo are, in general, written 'titles' and not meant to be used as direct forms of address and doing so makes no more sense than using a full title in English, "thank you, Dr. Brown, Licensed General Family Practitioner..." That means that people addressing their teachers as "Shihan" or 'Hanshi*' are incorrectly applying shogo; '(name) Sensei' is what you call her/him (although one could use the shogo to talk about a teacher to another, it would, again, tend to be used as distinction from someone with a similar name). This is true no matter whether Renshi (錬士- practice gentleman/expert), Shihan (師範- master paradigm) or Hanshi (範士- paradigm expert)- they may write shogo on meisho (明証 -certificates), but they should not expect you to call them such because it's goofy. Despite their frequent misapplication, shogo, when used correctly, point to people who exemplify the teachings of a Ryu (流- flow, a school or style). In order to discuss lineage titles, just a bit about how Ryu are structured.
Ryu exist for many types of endeavors in Japan, from Ikebana/Kado 生け花 [flower arranging] to Cha no Yu/Chado 茶の湯 [tea ceremony] to etiquette, music, and theater. Every member of a ryu is expected to mold him/herself to his/her ryu, first, by adopting group dynamics and reishiki (例式- formalities), then through the practice of Kata (形- forms). Initially rote and prescriptive, kata are designed to introduce clearly structured skills in certain orders to develop and integrate specific psycho-physical attributes. Eventually moving beyond emulation and repetition, the practitioner finds him/herself appropriately manifesting gensoku (principles) innate to his/her ryu as acquired through the practice of kata and deepened through oyo (application). It is in the transition from imitation of physical format to incorporation of the gensoku paired with immersion in the tradition that characterizes the oft-maligned (though, rather unsurprisingly, not often by those who are 'products' of) pedagogical methods of ryu.
Many ryu**, use lineal transmission (usually within families and/or around a location significant to the tradition) to ensure an active connection between the founder, the earliest students of the method, and subsequent generations. Inheritors serve as a bridge between the (sometimes distant) past, present, and future with duties ranging from mooring the transmission symbolically (fulfilling ceremonial tasks without involvement in day-to-day operations) to much more hands-on. Direct oversight can include everything from selecting prospective members to actively teaching, depending on the ryu.
The two most common titles for those charged with the oversight of a Ryu are Soke (宗家- sect house) or Iemoto (家元- family foundation), although in some traditions Shihan indicates generational responsibility (for others, Shihan are responsible for technical transmission) and similar to other official-sounding titles, these are frequently misused in the West. Implied by both is a willingness to carry their ryu's gensoku into the future with an odd combination of reverence, investment in their method's technical underpinnings and the fearlessness to encourage others to discover the 'truth' contained within the teachings. As with other shogo, it is unusual to hear them used as a direct form of address (although one does occasionally hear Japanese speakers refer to the inheritor of their art as 'Soke Sensei' if s/he actively teaches.)
Two final notes: when referring to one's own teacher to someone outside your group, it is déclassé to call him/her 'Sensei'; instead, standard politeness suggests that one to refer to him/her by family name (or whatever you use regularly) only. However, when referring to other people's teacher(s), it is normal to use Sensei (this may seem overly deferential, but again, reduces 'social friction'.)
So there you have it- a snapshot of shogo and their proper use. As with any component of training, the specifics may change depending on circumstance; in general, anyone teaching a Japanese-based art who wants you to call them by any title 'fancier' than Sensei on the tatami [畳 mat] demonstrates a lack of knowledge about (or indifference to) the culture, leading one to ask, 'what else might be odd?'
Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo
* Just to reiterate, if you're gonna misuse these titles, at least do it in the correct order- titles after name!!!
**It must be said that there are some ryu without a centralized family or locale at all. Rather than some (potentially distant) authority, these ryu rely on Menkyo Kaiden (complete transmission), at which point teachers have total discretion to move the ryu forward as they see fit, e.g. Araki and Kiraku Ryu.