Who is Sensei?

Japanese chef photo by Beth Macdonald

In Japan, especially if you’re a foreign student, sensei is God. Without one, you wouldn’t even be here. Displeasing one means sayonara after a year or even less. He charts your career, determines your fate in the university, and recommends your visa extension–even if your idea of coming to Japan is partying every night and getting drunk.

But who really is this holy entity called sensei? In a very hierarchical society such as Japan’s, every grownup is probably either a sensei or must have been one. This very flexible word may mean either of the following: teacher, master, or instructor; supposed teacher, master, or instructor; actual expert; supposed expert; self-professed expert; con-artist; person with experience; person with appearance; any type of doctor; person worthy of respect or who demands it; person with money; person who is better than me; person in uniform; person who can skip class; person who has appeared on TV; person who has lived in Istanbul; person who has been to Paris; person who has slept with… The list never ends.

It seems that the only people who are of the same level are those belonging to the same academic class; and if you’re looking for a non-sensei in Japan, that’s simple: he’s the lowly, pathetic ryugakusei (foreign student). His life dangles endlessly on a thin thread, with some kind of sensei at the other end. Let me illustrate.

Two friends and I once had dinner at a sushi shop, and the head sushi maker, if that’s what you call him, is called sensei. What if he puts stale fish on our sushi? When we once went to the Tokyo Immigration Bureau to extend our visas, the lady who examined my papers asked the bald, old man beside her–whom she called sensei–if the documents are in order. What if he says they’re not? Thank Sensei (or God) he said yes. And when I tried to book a flight home, there were no more seats available, until the clerk made a phone call to someone he called sensei, and I got a confirmed round-trip seat via Pakistan Air, just like that!

No word elicits greater respect, and even fear, than the word sensei. Check the English language and there’s probably no close equivalent. In the Western world, everyone strives to be on first-name basis with everyone else, to build lasting friendships or just to prove that we are all equal under heaven. That is unthinkable in Japan–either you’re sensei or you’re not.

And then there is the dai-sensei. To be listed in his class is a privilege in itself; and for Japanese students, it doesn’t really matter whether he shows up or whether he teaches anything. “Because he is our sensei.” And once a dai-sensei, you’re always one. Take the case of ex-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who was re-elected into office in his sickbed, with one foot in jail, because he probably made life better for the non-senseis. That was before he was tried and convicted in 1983 for accepting over $2 million in bribes from Lockheed Corp.

Soon after I arrived in Japan, my former sensei invited me to attend and take pictures for an international conference held at the AIST compound here in Tsukuba. Back at the University of the Philippines, our lab often entertained visiting Japanese scientists, and one of those whom I had met before and had accompanied to a shopping mall was there. A big, tall guy, and a typical dai-sensei, he is the head of some famous research institute in Kyoto and was probably in his mid-50’s.

While I was just in jeans and in some cheap shirt, he was wearing an expensive Armani suit. But why is he grinning from ear to ear while looking at me from a distance? “Doshite? (Why?)” I asked myself. Was it the chicharon bituka (deep fried pig innards) that I “forced” him to eat while he was in the Philippines? Or the succulent memories of sizzling sisig (more pork innards) that we had at a restaurant over a half-case of San Miguel beer?

And as soon as he got near, he blurted, “Sensei, konnichiwa,” and then walked on. “What? He called me sensei?” I excitedly told a friend who was also there, and who was equally dumbfounded. So I am also sensei, I am also God after all–okay, maybe with just a small “g” (hehehe)–and not just some misplaced gaijin photographer.

Mingling among my former Japanese lab mates later, I told one with pomp and pride, “Hey, Dr. Sato called me sensei!”

“Oh, really?” he smiled, “That means he forgot your name.”

Originally published in Philippines Today.

1 Like

:smiley: Haha, most likely true. This works the opposite way too: “Ano nga bang pangalan nung nasa office?..” “Sensei! Shitsurei shimasu…”

I mostly associate “Sensei” with the teachers in the Japanese language school I went to. I still remember their names: Ikeda Sensei, Nishigori Sensei, Utsumi Sensei…

When you’re learning Nihongo, this is one of the first words you learn and sticks with you for the rest of your life.