I'm not Japanese, and I've been emailed by someone who is Japanese, in the context of potential academic collaboration. He's in industry, not academia. He used the "-sensei" honorific to refer to me, while I had called him using his company-position-related honorific.

This seemed strange to me, since he's older and more senior than me (in most respects anyway). I was assuming he'd call me "-san", or if he wanted to be nice, then "-hakase" or no honorific at all.

My question: In what circumstances is it customary to call non-medical academics, with a doctoral degree, "-sensei", and in what circumstances is "-hakase" the custom?

  • Sensei is a general term for a teacher, especially a master teacher. A Zen Buddhist learns from a sensei unless the teacher has a specific high title such as a Roshi. In Chinese, a sensei would be sifu. Skilled at teaching. Specifically, it indicates respect of the student for the teacher. – Buffy Feb 5 at 21:28
  • Nothing hard and fast- sensei is a general respectful term for a teacher. -hakase I think specifically refers to doctorates, but is a little awkward because a fresh PhD and a senior would both be -hakase, so it puts them in the same bracket. Sensei is safe and common. I'm not Japanese though, would love to hear more nuance if someone can share. – AppliedAcademic Feb 5 at 21:29
  • @Buffy: I know that. I should mention my conversation partner is not a student, and our interaction will not be about me teaching him things (other than how we all learn from knowledgeable people blah blah). – einpoklum Feb 5 at 21:38
  • I think your partner is saying they have learned something useful/interesting from you and so you are, to them, sensei. Whether you thought you were teaching or not. Or, possibly, the person has misinterpreted your title/position. The Japanese can be quite polite. – Buffy Feb 5 at 21:43
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    @YiFan, thanks. I take it from Tai Chi, actually. And neither monk, nor master. – Buffy Feb 6 at 22:00

I've lived in Japan for two years and can speak the language to some extent.

Keigo is complicated, and any rule you learn about seems to have lots of exceptions. After two years, I felt that I had some idea, but I felt that I had far from mastered the intricacies. In particular, older people often addressed me using keigo for reasons I didn't quite understand.

"Sensei" is a general respectful term for a teacher. Since he is interested in an academic collaboration specifically, perhaps he regards you as "senior" because you have an academic position and he does not.

In any case, he has certainly addressed you with respect. If you're unsure of what Japanese title to use, and your correspondence is in English, I'd encourage addressing him in English as "Mr. X" or (if he has a doctorate) "Dr. X".

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  • Actually, and unfortunately, I don't have an academic position, but he may be assuming otherwise... anyway, I'm pretty sure I'm using the right honorific from my side. You haven't actually answered my question, i.e. - do people tend to address academics as "sensei" rather than "hakase"? – einpoklum Feb 5 at 22:06
  • "Sensei" is a general and common form of address, used for academics and other teachers. I have not heard "hakase" used as a form of address. – academic Feb 6 at 13:09

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