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
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 21:28
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    @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
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 21:38
  • 2
    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
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 21:43
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    @Buffy: But I haven't told him anything yet :-P
    – einpoklum
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 21:44
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    @YiFan, thanks. I take it from Tai Chi, actually. And neither monk, nor master.
    – Buffy
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 22:00

1 Answer 1


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.

"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.

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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