Do we need to know the meanings of all the Japanese terms used in karate?

In Japan, many English words are converted into Japanese. However, the definitions of the converted and original words tend to differ slightly.

For example, Japan adopted the word “revenge” and whilst pronouncing it similarly to how you would in English, but in Japan, it is used how you would use the phrase “try again”. So a Japanese person may say, “I will definitely revenge again!” with the intention of saying “I will definitely try again!”. This can cause misunderstandings.

The Japanese language has adopted many words from languages other than English. Each of them with slightly different meanings to the original word. This often leads to embarrassing situations where people use their interpretation of a word assuming its meaning is the same as the original.

English uses foreign words

Similar to how Japanese adopts English words, countless amounts of Japanese words have also been adopted into English. “Sushi”, “tsunami” and “judo” are just some examples.

Recently, the words “sensei” and “senpai” have also been imported and we often hear them in karate clubs across the US and UK. The word “sensei” originally means teacher and “senpai” means senior. Many seem to be familiar with the words “sensei” and “senpai” in particular as it seems like Japanese animation has had a great impact on karate enthusiasts since many of them also like anime.

However, when the words “sensei” and “senpai” were adopted in English speaking countries, the original Japanese meanings have been lost.

Illustration by Author

The meaning of the foreign word “sensei”

In Japanese, the word “sensei” is used as an honorific. It is most commonly used unconditionally to refer to teachers and doctors due to their occupation status. Other than those exceptions, the word “sensei” is generally used when referring to a person whom we respect.

Using honorific correctly is also a fundamental part of the spoken Japanese language. However, the English word “sensei” is used simply as a title. It is inserted before a person’s name in the same way titles like Mr, Mrs or Dr are.

In the karate industry, it has been a trend for many years to embroider your name and affiliation on a belt and some people will even put the word “sensei” before their name.

Generally, the English word “sensei” refers to an instructor of a karate club in which you belong. Therefore, no matter how much you respect someone, if he/she is not an instructor of your club, you can never call him/her your “sensei”.

For example, suppose John attended Chris’ karate club as a student. Then one day, John decided to become an independent instructor and started running his own karate club. From the day John left Chris’ karate club, he would no longer call him “sensei”. And if they happen to meet on the street, John might even say “Hey Chris! How ya doin’?”

How casual is that?

In order to practise karate in Europe or the United States, we need to understand that the word “sensei” is not an honorific but merely a title that is only applicable within the club. In that sense, the only aspect of the original meaning behind the word “sensei” that has been imported is the simple formalities when addressing people of certain occupations.

But what worries me more is how people use the word “senpai”.

The meaning of the foreign word “senpai”

Previously, I have explained that the word “sensei” is used to address an instructor of a karate club.

Then what about the word “senpai”?

In Japanese, “senpai” is an honorific you use to address those who have started working in a certain field, company or organisation before yourself regardless of skill or age. Thus, in karate clubs, regardless of skill or belt colour, those who started even one day earlier than you would be your “senpai” (senior). Similarly, those who started later would be your “kouhai” (junior).

So if students A, B, and C began in the same club in the order of A, B, and C, B would be C’s senpai, but B would not be A’s senpai. Similarly, even if A is not enthusiastic about training and B is at a higher rank, the order of senpai and kouhai will never change.

The English definition of “senpai” is completely different.

In English, the word “senpai” is used similarly to the word “sensei” in the sense that they are both titles used within a certain karate club. It is an honorary title given only to the person supporting the work of a “sensei”, an assistant instructor if you will.

With some exceptions, most clubs stipulate that only those with black belts who have been selected by a “sensei” can become a “senpai”.

When promoted as the “senpai”, everyone in that club will say “Congratulations!” or “Well done!” and they celebrate the promotion. When I saw this for the first time, my jaw dropped with severe culture shock as if my head had been hit with a hammer.

“Was he not always a senpai to everyone?”

“Does that student who started karate yesterday not consider me a senpai???”

After seeing this, I was left in confusion for several days.

Towards Intercultural Communication

If you think about it, despite karate clubs coming from Japan, in the West they will naturally form a gathering of people with Western cultures. So the existence of adopted Japanese words does not mean that the original cultural aspects will be adopted with them. However, this doesn’t mean that people disrespect their senseis and senpais. They respect each other differently in the way they use their language which may sometimes appear too friendly or casual to others who don’t come from the same background.

After all, what matters is not how you deal with words, but how you convey your feelings in your language.

Many more Japanese words will be adopted by other countries in the future. In that case, it may be difficult to incorporate the words together with its cultural background and it may sometimes be converted into a completely different meaning from how it is used in the Japanese language.

Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing how new words emerge, grow and adapt without worrying and forcing the original meaning on different cultures.

日系英国人 / 武術研究家 / ミニマムキャンパー

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