Karate Rank and Titles

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There seems to be a lot of confusion on the Internet regarding titles.  So I hope this blog will at least make the water somewhat less muddy.

The use of titles in martial arts stems from the Dai Nippon Butokukai (大日本武徳会).  A lot of the members from the pre-WW2 Butokukai were also members of the Japanese government and military, so when the DNBK would issue titles it would come from someone with that type of authority.  The three titles that were originally issued from the DNBK were: Renshi (錬士), Kyoshi (教士), and Hanshi (範士).

These titles have a somewhat militaristic meaning to them.  So to break these down.

Renshi -  (錬) Tempering/Refine/drill/polish (士) Warrior – These are your lower level teachers who are typically around a 6th dan (Rokudan Renshi), and are considered people who have the full curriculum (Menkyo Kaiden) but are still working on refining techniques.

Kyoshi – (教) Teach (士) Warrior – These are really individuals who should be focused on teaching.  They are considered a master teacher, they should know the full curriculum and be able to teach it with a high level of understanding.  This typically comes in at 7th dan.  Additionally in the education system teachers are called Kyoshi spelled like 教師.

Hanshi (範) Model/Example (士) Warrior – These are senior level teachers who have spent many years teaching and now may be the head of a group or organization.  They should fully understand the curriculum that they were taught and be able to transmit the style with a high level of accuracy.  In Japan and Okinawa a Hanshi can be an 8th dan and above.  In styles like Kendo an 8th dan is the highest obtainable rank.

In my opinion if there is any SHU/HA/RI, it should be between Renshi, Kyoshi, and Hanshi level individuals.  Prior to that students should be learning the curriculum, not trying to incorporate their own ideas into it as "training".  That is really something for someone who has already got the training and understands it well enough to incorporate things that are meaningful.

So those are the three titles that started this whole mess.  After WW2 the DNBK was dissolved on 9 November 1946 as part of the post war treaty with the US, many of the senior members even lost their government jobs, and they were not re-established until 1953.  However the newly established DNBK no longer had any government or military backing, and many of the senior members left for other groups and never returned.

Since 1953 many of the martial arts groups started incorporating new titles and licenses for their patrons.  Some of these new titles include:

Shihan (師範) – Essentially a chief instructor of a dojo.
Shidoin (指導員) – Intermediate level instructor (regardless of grade).
Saiko Shihan (最高師範) – Senior chief instructor, top instructor in an organization.

The most recent edition to martial art titles is Soke (宗家).  Soke is a whole different can of worms because it is actually a legal title for someone who is an inheritor.  This is typically done through a family’s koseki (戸籍), which is a family register.  This becomes enacted when someone passed away, the soke is the heir to the estate and they usually take care of things for the deceased person, such as funerals, any back property taxes, and things of that nature.  In the martial arts they use it as someone who has inherited a system from someone.  Which is misleading at best.

The Martial Art soke is someone who claims to be an inheritor of a style, but this does not work the way many people think that it does.  To say that it’s used loosely is an understatement.  So let’s look at a style such as Gojuryu.  The founder of Gojuryu, Miyagi Chojun, never left a clear inheritor of the system.  His family eventually said that Yagi Meitoku sensei was the heir only because he was there the longest, but Yagi sensei never once to my knowledge claimed the “soke” title, nor did any of his students or other student’s of Miyagi Chojun.  Yet after his death an individual from mainland Japan that had only attended a single seminar (at best) with Miyagi in Kyoto claimed to be the only true heir to Gojuryu.  How is this even possible?  The answer is, it is not.  There are several examples of this throughout the martial arts.  Lots of shady business when it comes to the use of soke, and the vast majority of people who claim this title have no business claiming it.

When it comes to ranking, as a 7th dan, I will not promote my own students to black belt.  Because as a 7th dan who am I to think I can award something like a shodan to someone?  These should all be awarded by the head of the organization from a panel type testing, and not from a single individual.  What I will do is evaluate them and give a recommendation to my teacher in Okinawa (who is a 10th dan).  But no testing is done or rank is awarded unless he sees them in person and is in agreement with my recommendation or retests them with several of his senior students present to give input.  I started doing this back in 2013 as a way to knock off any perception of impropriety within my dojo.  We really do try to do things on the up and up, and I don’t take the idea of giving someone rank lightly.

So when it comes to this stuff, ethics is key.  Someone claiming a title like Hanshi, Soke, Shihan, or even Grandmaster is likely NOT what they are claiming to be.  The real people out there know how they are suppose to act if they actually have a title, and forcing others to call them by a title is not the way to do it.  Always try to be ethical, do the right thing, train hard, and there are no secret made up titles that will actually give a person knowledge.