Last year on the Kaze Uta Budo Kai boards Sean Ashby posed a question.
"What is the appropriate way to use the term "sensei"? At what point does a person become or start being addressed as "sensei"? I would imagine that opinions vary on the subject, as would various schools and arts, so I'm curious to see what folks might have to say."
Nick Lowry responded.
"in the budo tradition we come from, typically after 4th dan students and peers may use the term sensei to refer to a teacher-- though in Japansese culture in general,
who serves as a teacher may be refered to in this way -- Later, after 6th dan you hear the term shihan or "leader of men" used as well, though the term sensei is still also completely appropraite reguardless of rank--
as with all honorific titles and ranks it is coinsidered rude and arrogant to use such terms to refer to oneself -- a point widely overlooked in the west where such usage has become an ugly form of advertising --
For myself, i am pointedly embarassed at my own (unknowing) misuse of such in the past -- i see that i was just following the examples of my role models, but i did not yet understand how my models were themselves being rude and arrogant
there are also a variety of other honorific titles that have been misused over the years which are missappropriations form other ranking systems-- i think it is best to just avoid them entirely"
And my response (slightly edited here)
What??? But I am the Sensei Strange!!!
Let me explain something about myself. I have degrees in Anthropology and Psychology. Like Indiana Jones, I was sure when I moved to Japan I was going to seamlessly blend into the culture, mastering the language in days. Contrary to my fantasies I remained a giant, fat, larger than life, boisterous heavy beer drinker. Much of my fitting in involved dancing on desktops (much to coworkers horror) staging fire shows, pouring Tequila into the city mayor until he ceremoniously vomited over a banquet and levitating cards in classrooms. I have a flair for the dramatic after all.
In 2000 I was writing articles for a few Zen and Budo online magazines. I found no matter how deep and insightful I wrote, no one would remember my name. For my performer's ego...it drove me crazy. Then one day in a class, one of my students called me 'Henna Sensei' meaning strange teacher. The words rolled around in my head for a few hours. Then as I returned to my desk I saw the pile of American comic books I brought from home for my students. On top was the comic, Dr Strange - sorcerer supreme. Then in a flash the two ideas merged and "Sensei Strange" came to me. Well aware of the Japanese language conventions, I started using it as a pen name. Instantly I became memorable. Interesting thing about art - how you frame it is sometimes as important as the art itself.
I ran the name by some of my Japanese friends as a stage name for the magic act I was developing. They all gave it a yes vote. Then slowly over the next few years, being a shameless self promoter of magic I introduced myself as Sensei Strange more and more! It became my real and only name for almost everyone I now know. It is my professional name of sorts. So I adopted Sensei...not as a mere title. I adopted it as my company name, and hence it became my name!!!! Talk about rude and arrogant! Again, I proved myself to be a white, bearded Godzilla plowing through Japanese conventions.
Then it came time for me to open a dojo. I explained for all my students not to call me sensei. At the time I was not high enough ranked in the art I wanted to teach. But it was the name they all knew me by! Eventually I stopped fighting it. The title/name became an avatar to aspire to fill. I had to live up to my own self created legend.
That's my story. Is it arrogant and rude to call yourself Sensei? Yup. Magicians are special though. Martial arts magicians are double special. We can trick you AND trip you.
Plus really pretty people like me can do what we like. :D
Nowadays I am not pushing the magic career as hard as I was, and I no longer am trying to brand myself anything, but the name kinda stuck. I try not to use it in budo contexts, and I save it just for the magic sites. So yes, I try to respect the conventions, but what a tangled web I weave.
Eric, the Sensei Strange