by Robert Haynes

The Kenkyusha New Japanese-English Dictionary defines the word sensei as, a teacher, a master, a doctor, a professor, a principal leader in his field. All of which is true, but there is a deeper and more lasting meaning to this word. It implies the trust and respect of the teacher to the student, and vice versa. A trust that must be respected by all who call another sensei, and by the sensei to all he calls students. Sometimes the word sensei is used too lightly and should not be applied to some who may have this appellation, but somehow we do know if a given person is a true sensei.

Today we find in many fields of Japanese fine arts where the term sensei is only rarely applied. In some fields of art, in the past, there were more sensei than students, but we find this in the West as well, where there are more "Doctors" than students, and in either case the titles should be earned, not just given willy-nilly.

How does one become a sensei? It is almost a given, not by some higher academic authority but by all in a qiven field who know who is a sensei, and who is not. Today we find some students who have been suddenly elevated to the title of sensei. How can this happen? It seems that expediency and greed are the bases for the sudden elevation of a student to the level of sensei. Not an uncommon event in the world in which we live. In some cases the person who might be titled sensei, had sensei thrust upon them, and did not, and do not feel they should have this title at this stage of their studies. A sad event, but what can we expect in today's world, where respect for the student-teacher relationship lacks the formal co-dependence that all such symbiotic affiliations need to come to their full potential.
We are not sure who is entitled to be called sensei today. I do not have anyone in mind in the field of sword fittings, for unfortunately all those who might be called sensei today have not published any works on which their knowledge might be ascertained. We hear rumors of their knowledge, but where is the proof? Certainly not in the "certificates" that are written today. For they are produced as much for greed and "reputation" as for validity. Naturally in the past such persons as Dr. Torigoye, Sasano, and Wakayama were all entitled to be called SENSEI, but for some reason I never used the term when we spoke face to face, or when I wrote about them in later years. Probably because we took for granted that they WERE a sensei. If any person deserves the full title of sensei it would have been Akiyama Kyusaku. For me he is the only one who would be called sensei, above all others, but it would seem that he was not called sensei during his lifetime, and that after his death some would add sensei to his name. He certainly did not consider himself a "sensei", for he never felt he had gained enough knowledge in his field to use such a title.

Is there still a need for the term "sensei"? Not by itself, but perhaps those who were called sensei might be called by another name. What is needed today is not a label for a teacher, but teachers who could be called sensei through their knowledge and any additions they might make to the available information we now have in the field of sword fittings. Hollow titles mean nothing for the student if he does not gain new and important knowledge in his field of study. In fact it might be better if the student and the teacher were on a more even ground where the student might gain his information by a close interaction with the teacher and eliminate the barrier of the sensei title.

Perhaps some of the readers of this article might like to add their thoughts and feelings to what has been written above. We need all the help we can get from each and every student.


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