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Chris Wissmann
Chris Wissmann's picture
Martial Arts Honorifics in a Non-binary World

My instructor and the students of his who went on to teach, myself included, have always addressed students formally in the dojo as "Mr. [last name]" or "Ms. [last name]." I briefly had a transgender student. He identified as male, so I could use Mr. with him. But I know that increasingly people feel more comfortable with or adamant about neither/nor both/and identities, and that got me thinking.

I really don't want to use first names (too informal) or just last names (too disrespectful). But I don't want to use Mr. or Ms. if that disrespects someone who doesn't identify as such. I was thinking about using sempai, but don't think that fits, as I believe we reserve that term for the senior kyu grade student. Then again, I don't speak Japanese, so maybe I'm wrong about that.

Does anyone use formal, sex-neutral honorifics when addressing students? What are they?


Leigh Simms
Leigh Simms's picture

Hi Chris,

Is there a reason you do not want to ask the student how they would to be named?

Perhaps calling someone Mr_______ or Ms________ is disrespectful to them? I personally do not like being called Mr Simms and ask people to simply call me Leigh. 

Without trying to come across as a pain, it does seem like you're trying to keep your personal views (not using first names only, not using surnames only) but also trying to respect other peoples views. When there is a disconnect or conflict; I'd chose whatever the person would like to be called. 

I do appriciate this can be a bit of a rabbit-hole.

I've taught student's who (I presume) do not identify as male or female but to be honest I am presuming this becuase its never actually arisen as a topic of conversation. I ask people what they would like to be called and called them by that name. Maybe I lost a bit of "formality" but I guess I gained "compassion" and "empathy" - which I think are much more endearing attributes in a dojo.

Wastelander's picture

I'm with Leigh, on this one--you're going to have a hard time adhering to your desire for formality AND accomodating how other people want to be referred to, when not everyone wants to be referred to in a formal manner, like that. I know I do NOT like being called "Mr. Legel," and the fact that my late sensei's instructor always did it made me uncomfortable. Even when kids refer to me as their sensei, it's with my first name, not my last name. That said, if you insist on formality, the gender-neutral honorific is Mx (pronounced like "mix"): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mx_(title)

I would highly encourage you to talk with your students about how they would like to be referred to, though, because not everyone is going to be comfortable with these sorts of honorifics, regardless. Asking them what their preferred pronouns are is also important, since we often have to use pronouns when coordinating training, and affirming people's gender identity and pronoun choice will help them feel more confident and comfortable in the learning environment.

PASmith's picture

Just call everyone "geezer" like I do and it all evens out. :)

Chris Wissmann
Chris Wissmann's picture

I love the geezer suggestion! But I probably won't use it.

When I've had questions, I do ask my students, and thus far Mr. and Ms. have worked fine, with one Mrs. when I had a mother and daughter in the class and didn't want them confused about whom I wanted to address. Mainly I'm planning ahead for when those options no longer suffice.

Pronouns are easy enough, it's the honorifics or formal titles that I wonder about. They help to communicate the seriousness of the class and the information presented in it, and I find that sets a respectful tone among everyone. Perhaps Mx. is the solution.