Sifu, Sensei, Sabom-Nim – What’s The One Thing That Unites Them?

From the very beginning of their existence, martial arts knowledge and techniques have been transmitted from  masters to pupils. In this way, masters were able to prevent martial arts knowledge and values from fading away with time. And thanks to them, nowadays we still have disciplines that have survived even for centuries.

In every single country, Masters are known by different names, but at the end of the day, they all refer to the same thing: people who have an extensive knowledge of their martial art , use their martial arts philosophy in their daily lives, and teach it to others through their embodiment of their discipline.

We’ve previously covered what exactly a martial arts master is, and described the lengthy journey that it takes to become one. We’ve also looked at the core attributes of a martial arts master, separating the great from the good.


Now let’s look at some of the names given to masters in different disciplines.

Sensei is the term for “master” used in Japanese martial arts. Technically, the word means “one who has gone before” and it is used to refer to a teacher in general, as well as to professors, mentors, doctors , and those who are skilled and accomplished in the art that they practice.

The word sensei has somewhat different meanings to different martial arts. In judo and other more traditional arts, for example, while the word can indeed mean “master” or “instructor,” a sensei is more akin to a life guide, or role model. There are many different styles of judo and it would be difficult to learn them all, so a sensei will most importantly live the best life they can and help transmit that lifestyle, along with their skills, to their students. A sensei is indeed “one who has gone before,” having spent years living out their life in line with the teachings of their martial art, making them ideal guides down that path .

Sifu has a similar meaning to sensei, in that it’s a broad term for a skilled person or a master of a particular discipline. In modern parlance it’s part of a wide variety of words used to address people of skilled professions, as well as a term in Chinese martial arts used by an apprentice to describe their master.

The word Sabom-nim refers to martial arts instructors in Korean disciplines who have met or surpassed the 4th degree of their highest belt. There are other words, like Sonseang-nim which refers to a teacher in general, and Suseung-nim, which is the term used by a student to refer to their own master.

These words are all different, and come from different backgrounds, but in the world of martial arts, they all mean the same thing – a skilled individual who has adopted their discipline as part of their lifestyle, who lives out its philosophy, and who guides their students along the same path that they too once walked. They will always be worthy of our respect as  teachers of the martial arts and role models to look up to .


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