Random Kanji Knowledge: Sensei

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Ahh, the Japanese word sensei is something many people probably hear all the time. So how does one form the word in the Japanese language?

Sensei uses two kanji characters to create the word compound. The first character, 先, means “previous” or “former.” The second character, 生, means “life/to live.”

You could translate the combination many ways, but I like to think of it as “former life,” as in someone who has a lot of experience to their name. A common usage of sensei in Japanese culture, of course, often refers to a teacher/professor. After all, a teacher or professor is someone who is knowledgeable because they are sharing their wisdom with others.

Sensei can also be used outside of the classroom for other people who are highly regarded, such as doctors and other professions you respect. This is why sensei is often translated as “master” in certain context, due to the level of admiration the title connotes.

Also, I have to throw out there that you would use sensei in a reverse order in standard Japanese, based on the grammar structure of name honorifics.

Correct: X person’s name (usually last name, but first names can also be used) followed by sensei. Example: Smith-sensei.

Incorrect: Sensei-Smith. <— Wrong.

Do you ever call anyone 先生?

Now you know. >^..^<

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4 thoughts on “Random Kanji Knowledge: Sensei

  1. Interesting. I hear “Sensei insert-name-here” all the time on TV; I did not know that was wrong.
    Or would that be the difference between the “Japanese” method and the “American” method? (E.g. “last name first name” versus “first name last name” or “name sensei” versus “professor name”)

    Either way, I’ll have to try to remember that in my writing. I’m sure it will come up at SOME point….

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    • Yes, I meant that a lot of people are not aware that Japanese honorifics/titles follow the name as opposed to being in the front like in English. I was referring more to the context of regular Japanese grammar.

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      • I’ve heard a lot of honorifics following the name as a suffix; I’d just never realized that Sensei was one of them. I’ll continue to blame translated media. ;)
        (dono, chan, and a lot of others come up frequently in the anime and manga that I read, but I don’t remember Sensei in anything but AMERICAN media that’s trying to sound Japanese…. like Sensei Wu in this Ninjago cartoon my nephew watches.)
        So I can chalk this up to the difference between English grammar and Japanese grammar, then? And simply apply it based on where my characters come from? (Or how knowledgeable they are about the other country’s grammar.)

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    • Eh, I guess at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that much. I do have a Japanese minor to my name, so part of me cringes a bit when I hear “Sensei —” versus how it would be in Japanese speech … perhaps it is unwarranted even.

      I would just group sensei with the other Japanese honorifics.

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