Like so many other Japanese words, it contains meanings far beyond that of its day-to-day usage. The word means teacher, but it can imply the qualities that are ideally found in one who shares with another knowledge and instruction about more than just classroom facts and figures.
I was an English teacher in Japan. When asked what I did, I would answer, as is customarily humble among the Japanese, ''I teach.''
''Aahh,'' would come the reply. ''You are a sensei.''
But I did not, of course, claim directly to be such a person at all.
Fresh out of college, I sat in teachers' meetings, sneaking glances at veterans of forty years in the teaching profession, who had been at my school since its founding. They, like me, were addressed as sensei. I felt they deserved the title - they had experience. But here I was, expected to impart (or so I thought) the secrets of the universe and the meaning of life from the vast coffers of my twenty-one years' experience. I felt rather ill-equipped for the task.
Some days being a sensei (''one who has lived before'') came more easily than others. There were the magic times when the students appreciated a story's humor. Or when the historical fact behind a story prompted serious and thoughtful observations by my class. And the lovely days when neither my eyes nor my students' eyes strayed toward the large clock on the wall.
But there were many days to offset those golden ones. Days when students would begin to shuffle their books together five minutes before the bell was to ring, or look completely blank at questions about the previous night's homework. And periods, close to vacation time, when the pressure to play Scrabble or Password became unbearably strong, and serious pursuits, after my refusal to yield, seemed completely hopeless.
It was at such times that I would escape to the river behind the school to be a person who simply enjoyed watching the fishermen and children playing by the shore in the late afternoon sun. And it was on one such afternoon that I met my sensei, who shared freely and happily with me the secrets and experiences of her world.
She was ten. She took it upon herself to figure me out, with unusual forthrightness. With her bold query, ''Who are you?,'' she introduced herself and took command of the relationship and our meetings.
We soon began to take walks together, she listening carefully to my shaky Japanese and my observations about my new home, and rephrasing her remarks kindly when I could not understand her colloquial ten-year-old speech. Sometimes we would amble along together with her dog. Other days, I met her returning from school. Once, at her request, I even watched her run in a town marathon. She obviously enjoyed all our times together, particularly when we ran into other children. Then she would smile defiantly and proudly as they gaped at her confident chats with the gaijin (''foreigner'').
Sometimes I played the teacher, translating words and phrases of Japanese into English at her request, as she struggled to remember, or simply laughed at, their odd sound. But more often she was the sensei, telling me of her fifth-grade trials at the local school, or tales of the games she played with her friends, or what she thought about the few other Americans who had lived in the small town.
The relationship had its perquisites. Not only did I have a particular friend , but soon every local fifth-grade girl knew my name and all of my curriculum vitae. Girls I didn't know would greet me at the town market, explain that they were ''Mika's friend,'' and wander along the route home with me. And because of Mika's staunch friendship, I became a member of what I called the ''river group, '' the random assortment of fishers, joggers, mothers, and children that frequented the river at all times of day. Once one person had broken the ice, I quickly lost my ''stranger'' status and was an accepted fixture along the river levy. My acquaintances grew to include not only Mika, but the man who practiced Buddhist chants early in the morning by the dam, and the lady who ran the corner notions store.
My friend taught me a great deal of informal Japanese, and I taught her some words in English. But Mika unconsciously guarded the role of sensei jealously. For, while she scrutinized my life and feelings unmercifully, she offered in return an unveiled look into her own life and perspectives, as well as membership throughout the year in the town life beyond the walls of my private school.
Her gift to me wasn't the unsolicited instruction in Japanese, or the often unplanned meetings by the river or on a street. It was, simply enough, that she was willing to regard me as something other than the distant foreigner, the strange outsider who had come to live in her town for one year. Throughout the autumn, winter, and spring, she always was eager to meet, to talk, to joke about the latest events in her life, or to learn about my school. Despite its proximity, she had never visited, as was evident by her remark that the house I shared with other teachers was so big that ''ghosts must live there.'' The large and rather dark buildings behind an old stone wall had seemed perhaps too foreboding to her. Now they were an integral part of her town.
I grew very fond of her, and her friendship touched me in a lasting way. She shared the bond, although I didn't really believe this until the last day we met , before I returned to the United States. She chose that day to prove proudly that indeed she was beginning to learn a bit of English in school, first by wading through the alphabet for my benefit, and then by writing her address, not only in Japanese characters but in carefully formed Romanized characters as well. With it, of course, came serious instructions to please write.
It was a brief but meaningful farewell. I thought of the deeper sense of what a sensei could be as she prepared to part, now a considerably more important acquaintance than ''just the little girl'' whom I had first met when I arrived in her hometown. We exchanged our last pleasantries, our last words of thanks, -- then she ran off after thrusting a small gift in my hand, along with the precious paper. But she paused, and turned back, with a mischievous glint in her eye.
''Goodbye!'' she shouted with a strong accent, and we both laughed at her small joke.