And kanji with manga
Sunday, April 2, 2017

sensei 先生

In Japanese, sensei 先生 means "teacher" most of the time. It can also mean "doctor," or refer to an artist or author, a "master" of arts. It's also a honorific, so it can come after the name of someone who's a teacher, doctor, artist, etc.

An example of sensei 先生 used in manga.
Manga: "Assassination Classroom," Ansatsu Kyoushitsu 暗殺教室 (Chapter 2)

Kanji of Sensei

The kanji of sensei 先生 mean "previous," 先, and "life," 生.

The kanji of sensei 先生, "Teacher" in Japanese.

In other words, sensei means literally "previous life," because your teacher is usually someone who is older than you, he's passing onto you knowledge of his life, the previous life.

Of course, it's not always the case that your sensei is older than you, but that's just where the word comes from.

"Teacher" in Japanese

The word sensei 先生 can mean "teacher" in Japanese.

先生はね 渚君 ある人との約束を守るために君達の先生になりました quote from manga Assassination Classroom, Ansatsu Kyoushitsu 暗殺教室 (Chapter 2)
Manga: "Assassination Classroom," Ansatsu Kyoushitsu 暗殺教室 (Chapter 2)
  • Context: a teacher talks to a student.
  • sensei wa ne, Nagisa-kun
    先生はね 渚君
    Nagisa-kun, [about me], [you see]
    • In this line, the speaker is the teacher, the sensei.
    • So when he talks "about the sensei," he's talking about himself: "about me."
    • In Japanese, using titles in this way is uncommon, but possible.
  • aru hito to no yakusoku wo
    mamoru tame ni
    kimi-tachi no sensei ni

    To keep a promise with a [certain] person, [I've] become your teacher.
    • kimi-tachi no 君達
      Your. (plural. The teacher of you, and the rest of your class. See: pluralizing suffix.)

Note that there are also other words that can refer to teachers, for example:
  • kyoushi 教師
    • Who teaches in a:
    • kyoushitsu 教室
    • Can also refer to a teacher as in someone who offers guidance in a:
    • kyoukai 教会
    • senkyoushi 宣教師
  • katei kyoushi 家庭教師
    Family teacher. (literally.)
    Private tutor.
  • tan'nin kyoushi 担任教師
    tan'nin no sensei 担任の先生
    Teacher in charge.
    • The teacher who's in charge of a classroom, also known as "homeroom teacher."
  • kyouin 教員
    Faculty member.
    • Any "educator" from grade school to high school.
  • kyouyu 教諭
    Licensed teacher.
    • Someone with a license to teach in a school.
  • kyouju 教授
    • Specially of an university, or college, daigaku 大学, as opposed to high-school and below.
  • hakase 博士
    Professor. PhD. Doctor.
    • In anime, these are often researchers, inventors, scientists, not teachers.

"Master" in Japanese

The word sensei 先生 may also refer to a "master," in the sense that they're an expert in their field or craft and you can learn from them, even if they aren't in fact officially teaching anyone as a normal teacher would.

僕は助手です!!この名探偵桂木弥子先生の!! quote from manga Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro 魔人探偵 脳噛ネウロ (Chapter 1)
Manga: Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro 魔人探偵 脳噛ネウロ (Chapter 1)
  • Context: just... just focus on the dialogue, okay?
  • boku wa joshu deshu!!!
    I'm an assistant!!
  • kono meitantei
    Katsuragi Yako-sensei no!!

    Of this famous detective, Katsuragi Yoko-sensei!!
    • Here, sensei is an honorific. (explained further below.)
    • She's a famous detective, because of her incredible detective skills, so she's addressed as a "master" of her craft.
    • The no の at the end turns the noun into a no-adjective, which normally qualifies what comes after it, but, in this case, it qualifies joshu, which is in a previous sentence.
    • sensei no joshu
      Sensei's assistant.
      Assistant of sensei.

Of course, there are also other words for "master" in Japanese, like:
  • shishou 師匠
    Master. (e.g. of martial arts.)
  • goshujinsama ご主人様
    A retainer's lord.
    A slave's master.
    A pet's owner.
    A shop's owner.
    A woman's husband.
  • masutaa suru マスターする
    To master. (a skill.)

"Doctor" in Japanese

The word sensei 先生 may also refer to a "doctor."

先生 先生と俺、あんまり年違わないけど・・・・・・・・・・・・ 先生・・・・・・親父みたいだ。 quote from manga MONSTER (Chapter 7)
Manga: MONSTER (Chapter 7)
  • Context: patient in wheelchair talks to their doctor.
  • sensei
  • sensei to ore,
    anmari toshi
    chigawanai kedo............

    [You] and me, [our] ages don't differ much, but.........
    • We're about the same age, but...
  • sensei...... oyaji mitai da.
    [You]...... are like [my] father.

Note that there are other words used to refer to doctors, for example:
  • isha 医者
  • oishasan お医者さん
    Doctor. (polite variant.)
  • ishi 医師
    Doctor (certified.)
    • The difference between ishi 医師 and isha 医者 is that an isha is a "doctor" in the sense that they're treating patients, while ishi 医師 is literally a "master of medicine."
    • That is, ishi 医師 puts emphasis on knowledge and expertise, and, perhaps most importantly, on their medical certification, their medical license.
    • In manga, sometimes you have black market doctors who don't have a license but go around treating people. Those would be isha, but not ishi.

"Author," "Writer," "Artist" in Japanese

The worse sensei 先生 can also refer to authors, writers of fiction, novels, and artists, painters, illustrators, etc.

In the manga and anime Bakuman バクマン, for example, Ashirogi Mutou 亜城木 夢叶 is the pen name used by the two main characters on the manga they author. It's not even a real name, it's just a pseudonym. Even so, they are still called Ashirogi-sensei 亜城木先生 by other characters in the series because their skill and knowledge in the field has been deemed real.

Note that, again, there are other words for this stuff:
  • sakka 作家
  • shousetsu-ka 小説家
    Novelist. Fiction writer.
    • Writes:
    • shousetsu 小説
  • manga-ka 漫画家
    Manga artist.
  • ga-ka 画家
  • irasutoreetaa イラストレーター


When sensei 先生 comes after a person's name, it means that person is a sensei. That is: that person is a teacher, or a doctor, or an artist, or a writer, etc. For example:
  • watashi no sensei 私の先生
    My teacher.
    • Here, sensei is a noun.
  • Tanaka-sensei 田中先生
    Tanaka (who's a teacher.)
    Teacher Tanaka.
    • Here, sensei is a honorific.
  • watashi no sensei wa Tanaka-san
    My teacher is Tanaka-san.
  • sensei ni osowatta koto wa isshou wasurenai
    The thing [that] teacher taught [me, I] will [never] forget.
    • sensei ni osowaru 先生に教わる
      To be taught by teacher.
    • isshou wasurenai 一生忘れない
      To not forget in one's whole life.
      To never forget.
  • Tanaka-sensei ni osowatta koto wa isshou wasurenai
    The thing [that] Tanaka-sensei taught [me, I] will [never] forget.
    The thing [that] Tanaka (who's a teacher) taught [me, I] will [never] forget.
    The thing [that] teacher Tanaka taught [me, I] will [never] forget.

When this sort of thing happens, it's called a honorific. In Japanese, when a noun is used as a honorific, it means that person is that noun. This often happens with titles of professions. An example of another noun honorific:
  • watashi no senpai 私の先輩
    My senior.
  • Tanaka-senpai 田中先輩
    Tanaka (who's my senior.)
  • Tanaka-hakase 田中博士
    Tanaka (who's a professor.)
    Professor Tanaka.
  • Tanaka-shishou 田中師匠
    Tanaka (who's my master.)
    Master Tanaka.
  • Tanaka-oniisan 田中お兄さん
    Tanaka (who's my older brother.)
    Big bro Tanaka.


The word sensee せんせ is a distorted spelling of sensei. It means the same thing, it's just spelled differently, and likely pronounced more casually.

せんせー なんだ? 目が悪いので前の席と交換してほしいんですが quote from manga School Rumble (Chapter 3)
Manga: School Rumble (Chapter 3)
  • sensee
  • nanda?
    What is it?
  • me ga warui node
    mae no seki to
    koukan shite

    [I have poor eyesight] so [I] want to switch [with one of] the front seats.
    • me ga warui 目が悪い
      Eyes are bad. (literally.)
      To have poor eyesight.


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  1. However this is wrong in many cases where the "gakusei" is an illiterate adult and the "sensei" is a young child.

    1. Yeah, well, the origin of the word doesn't match how it's used in the modern world.

  2. I have heard that sometimes the "dehati" people address each other as "sensei" even if the other person is a teacher or not