Shihan – Sensei – Senpai – Which to Use

The dojo culture can be confusing for non-Japanese students.  For example what’s with all these titles and how should one properly address people at the dojo.

Westerners tend to refer to people with a gender-specific Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms., and sometimes will identify someone by their educational or position status and address them as Doctor or Professor. However, modern society seems to be moving away from almost all formality in everyday use since it’s a rare occurrence when people use a title when addressing someone.

But that’s not the case in the Japanese or dojo culture. Technically honorifics aren’t part of basic Japanese grammar, but are very much a part of its sociolinguistics. Therefore, it’s beneficial for someone training in any Japanese martial art to have a general understanding of grammar and social etiquette.

An honorific is generally used when referring to the person you’re talking to or an unrelated third party, so dropping the honorific suffix is considered rude and arrogant. Using an honorific when referring to yourself is simply not done, and is also considered rude and arrogant.

There are many rules as to which form of an honorific should be used in appropriate Japanese speech. Honorifics can be used for both males and females. The most commonplace san is a title of respect typically used between equals of any age.

Derived from the more respectful sama, san is almost universally added to the end of a person’s name. For example, when referring to someone named James, san is added to become James-san.

San is also used with a variety of objects or nouns, and can be added to an occupation, company or institution (a bookseller might be referred to as honya–san — bookstore + san).

Sama is a more respectful version of san, as it’s used to refer to people much higher in rank than you, your guests, and sometimes people you greatly admire.

Kun is used by persons of senior status in addressing or referring to those of junior status.

Standing Bow


(The following material is an excerpt from “An Open Secret” A Student’s Handbook for Learning Aikido Techniques of Self-Defense and the Aiki Way.)


Common Honorifics Used in a Dojo:



·      Senpai is used to address one who is a senior student to you.

·      Though someone of equal or lower level than yourself is referred to as kohai, you would still address them with the honorific san.

·      Like Doctor in English, senpai can be used by itself as well as with a name (i.e., Senpai Bob or Bob-Senpai. Due to the phonological rules of the Japanese language, although it’s spelled with an “n” the word sounds like “m,” thereby being pronounced sempai.)

·      Sensei literally means “former born, or one who has gone before,” and is used to address all teachers. Someone who instructs a class, regardless of their rank, is always addressed as Sensei during class.

·      Dan ranks imply one’s level of mastery of the art. Again, due to Japanese phonetics dan is pronounced “don.” Holders of first, second and third dan ranks are referred to individually as senpai. Those ranked fourth dan and above are always addressed as Sensei.

The most senior level Aikido instructors are increasingly using the title Shihan, meaning “to be a model,” which conveys respect as Master (usually also awarded with a rank of 7th Dan and above). One always addresses senior instructors as Sensei. You would not address someone as Shihan Bob in the first person, but may do so in the third person.

Additionally, there are certain titles frequently used to refer to the top person within the dojo or organization:  Cho, Kancho, and Soke all generally translate into the “head of” or “top of.”  Therefore, the dojo Cho is the head of the dojo, while Kancho and Soke generally refer to the head of the organization.

2 Responses

  1. Robert Kent says:

    Actually – I believe “Sempai” is the preferred spelling. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs requires the use of the Hepburn system of transliteration, which is based on English phonology, and is most common in Japan, though not all Japanese use it perfectly. Sempai also has the advantage of correctly conveying how the word is supposed to be pronounced . . .

    • Tony Blomert says:

      Yes this is the diference (IMHO) between new age and old school. I was lead to understand that both can be and are used. But certainly using the English phonetics version makes it easier. Thank you for adding this comment.

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