How to Address a Martial Arts Teacher

Are you wondering whether to call the martial-arts teacher sensei, sifu, or guro?

My advice is to follow the lead of those around you. (There, now you don’t have to read the rest of this post.  😉

I believe that, within reason, you should address the person how he or she want to be addressed.

Note: I do have a pet peeve outside of the world of martial arts. I think that a title goes with a last name. None of this “Doctor Dave,” or “Rabbi Josh” stuff. Also, the word “doctor” is title, not part of the person’s name. The receptionist has to check with THE doctor, not, “Let me go ask Doctor.”  As I said, just a personal, pet peeve.

There is a tendency toward casualness in more of the martial arts schools that focus on combative (self-defense) arts, rather than competitions and belts.

Here’s what I am talking about:

1. Steve Golden always requested that people address simply as “Steve.” I noticed the same phenomenon back in the 80s with Dan Inosanto. And at a seminar in Torrance in the late 1990s, I noticed that people like Herb Jackson, Bob Bremer, and Pete Jacobs seemed a little uncomfortable when they were addressed more formally, but they responded immediately when I addressed them using only their first names.

2. As a high-school teacher, I had avoided the use of the first name on campus, with the students (many reasons).

Now, I let people call me what makes them feel comfortable — Keith, Kip, Mr. Pascal, Señor Pascal, Pascal … just please don’t call me “Pencil sharpener” or “Backyard Patio.” (I probably wouldn’t know to respond to those.)

3. I can’t remember if it was Daniel Lee or David Leung, but one of them explained to a student, while I lent an ear, that Cifu (Sifu) doesn’t simply mean teacher in the general sense of the term; it implies more of an ethical responsibility for the student by the teacher and vice versa.

The teacher benefits by the good actions of the student, but the teacher also has to assume responsibility for the bad that the student might do out in the real world. (Ugh … such duty.   😉

4. I don’t mind someone referring to me as “sensei” or “sifu.”  As I said, whatever makes the other person happy, and I truly mean that. Internally, however, when someone writes it or uses it face-to-face to me, a little voice says, “Nope, I don’t want all the responsibility that the term might or might not imply. This isn’t my actual student.” (Then my brain and my conscience can relax a little.)

I hope that you found this little exploration into martial forms address useful and different from the typical, “If it’s a Japanese martial art, then say sensei. If it’s a Chinese martial art, use Sifu. If …”

(Oh, and if you are interested in better teacher-student interactions in a martial-arts context, check out Teaching Martial Arts More Effectively.)

How do you prefer to be addressed?  Are you a teacher or student?

Keith “Kip” Pascal

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Comments (3)


  1. Keith,
    I have a rather strong opinion on this that we practice in my schools. Fist I insist on being address as Sensei in Public (Tournaments, etc…), at Belting Ceremonies, and any formal function in the school. Any other time it’s Ben by adults and Mr. B by the kids.
    I feel my job is to teach, not demand respect via a title that to the particular person may or may not mean anything. I qualify as a Master and don’t ever want to hear that except when in a most formal ceremony. I do expect the school and the flag to be shown respect, but until I have earned it, I don’t feel I can command it.
    I know a lot of other schools that title and rank is mandatory, but we are all students, from the time we are born until we die. I understand that, in fact I teach it as the most fundamental rule in my schools. We have done away with wearing rank belt except for formal or tournament wear. We are all equals in searching for the “way”. Good thought provoking article. Thanks,

  2. kerwinbe says:

    I felt exactly as you did as a high-school teacher. Now, I have the luxury of teaching out of my own home, so informality reigns.

    And you’ll find this ironic, Ben — when out in pubic, I prefer that my students do NOT address me with a title. In class, whatever floats their boat, really. But in public, I don’t want other martial artists copying them and calling me Sifu. I don’t want the obligation implied, if I am not their primary teacher.

    A funny … once, at a Steve Golden seminar, I helped a guy with a move. I wasn’t an official helper or anything; I just saw a problem and helped him find the answer. He said, “Thank you, Sifu Pascal.” The next thing I knew, I was listed in his credentials as one of his teachers. I am not kidding.


  3. Bob Suttles says:

    I take it . I can’t call you SUPER GREAT SIFU KIP.anymore. Sorry I can’t do it. You are the GREAT ONE. PROF. Suttles Love you. You are a great guy. P.S. Kate I don’t love him in that way . Please don’t hurt me. She gave me a good black eye a few years back. That lady can hit. Love you both.
    Bob S.

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