Judo and Japanese Terms
Because Judo originated in Japan, the Japanese language played a large role in transmitting Judo concepts and techniques to our international sports and education communities. This type of relationship between sports and language is true for a variety of activities in other countries. Until very recently, a knowledge of basic Japanese Judo terms ensured that one could practice in a Judo dojo just about anywhere, regardless of his or her ability in the local languages. This Judo terminology created a common ground for “Jita Kyoei,” the ideals of “Mutual Benefit and Mutual Understanding.”
In order to create harmony and respect in the dojo, it is important to use titles correctly. The variety of titles can seem confusing, especially in Japan, which has a vertical society, or “tate shakai.” This system, which is represented in Judo, considers a person’s position or rank in relation to one’s own status.
Important Titles and Their Uses: Sensei, Sempai, Kohai, San, and Mr. or Ms.?
One of the frequently used and abused titles in Judo is “Sensei.” The kanji characters for “sensei” mean literally “born before,” someone who is typically older, more experienced, and who leads the way. While most people use the term to mean “teacher,” it conveys a deeper meaning that includes the concept of obligations between the student and the instructor.
American judo students frequently make common mistakes with the title, “sensei.” Strictly speaking, the sensei (plural) are those who hold the rank of “go-dan,” fifth degree black belt. Since relatively few dojos outside of Japan have go-dan teachers, it is generally acceptable for students to call their black belts seniors “sensei,” when there is no higher-ranking yudansha present. No one under the rank of shodan is ever called “sensei.”
Referring to oneself as “sensei,” is incorrect, and considered extremely rude, particularly in Japan. “Sensei” does not automatically translate to “Coach,” even if that is the role of the instructor who mistakenly uses the term for himself. The title “san” is used in Japan after others’ family names. This corresponds to the English “Mr.” or “Ms.”. An individual never calls himself “Tanaka-san,” for example. It is also a major error to use “sensei” in front of the name of the person being addressed. “Tanaka Sensei” is correct. “Sensei Tanaka” is not. It is not acceptable for an instructor to call himself “Sensei Bob,” or to tell students to call him or her by first names. When in doubt about the correct way to address an instructor in the dojo, it is always courteous to call them Mr. or Ms.
The terms “sempai” and “kohai” refer to the relationships of seniors and juniors in the dojo. While newer students may call a senior student “Tanaka-sempai,” sempai and kohai generally represent the hierarchy of the dojo, and aren’t used frequently as titles.
In our casual American society, these distinctions may not seem important, but when used correctly, these terms foster a feeling of mutual respect that can improve instruction and transform the organization of the Judo Club. Another point to consider is the way we present ourselves to Japanese judoka. Dojo visitors should be made to feel welcome, and the small effort it takes to use polite titles with their names will create a great deal of good will. Also, when our local instructors and students have the opportunity to visit Japan and train, they are not expected to speak Japanese, but they are expected to express polite respect for their hosts and instructors by addressing them correctly.