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Rank and Titles in the Martial Arts
Scot Mertz
17 Jan 2023

This topic is kind of a can of worms, but I wanted to rehash an older post that I did in 2015 and kind of update it to reflect things that I see happening now in Okinawa and overseas.

First and foremost, rank and titles and should be mutually exclusive. While you might need to be a certain rank to obtain a title, the title shouldn't come because of the rank, but more because of doing extra work outside to set yourself apart from others in your peer group.

Before we really get deep into the titles please remember that at the time titles were added the grading system wasn't the kyu and dan system that most people are familiar with today, but instead it was based on an older menkyo system. At the time a Menkyo Kaiden (免許皆伝) was considered the most proficient level of a style, so the shogo (titles) were really added on after Menkyo Kaiden to express that the individual was extremely proficient as a martial artist. In modern terms if you look at how most styles are arranged a Menkyo Kaiden should be roughly at a 5th Dan level, meaning that the person knows the whole style and is able to independently teach and have a correct interpretation of the style.

Traditionally the Dai Nippon Butokukai (大日本武徳会) was the only organization that was authorized to issue a title or a teaching license to an individual. From 1895 to 1902 the highest title awarded was called Seirensho (精錬証), and in 1902 Kyoshi and Hanshi were introduced. In 1934 the title Renshi was established and the Seirensho title was abolished.

The first Karatejutsu Renshi title was awarded in May of 1936 to Inagaki Torakichi (born in 1905). Other individuals who held the renshi title included Funakoshi Gichin, Funakoshi Gigo, Otsuka Hironori, Mabuni Kenwa, Shinzato Jin'an, Nagamine Shoshin, and Higa Seiko.

The list of Karatejutsu Kyoshi holders included Miyagi Chojun, Konishi Yasuhiro, and Ueshima Sannosuke.

It should be noted that before WW2 there were no karatejutsu Hanshi awarded by the Dai Nippon Butokukai.

The titles themselves roughly mean:

Renshi (錬士) - A polished instructor, similar to a drill sergeant
Kyoshi (教士) - This is a fully licensed teacher
Hanshi (範士) - Recognized as a master instructor

Originally the titles were not associated with rank, but was considered an exceptional accomplishment for individuals who were already ranked at the top of their style. Eventually, the titles became associated with levels of rank when the kyu/dan system started taking hold. Renshi was recognized at 6th dan, Kyoshi at 7th dan and Hanshi at 8th dan.

The Kohaku obi (red white panel belt) was introduced in 1930, and it was originally used to represent individuals who showed a high level of proficiency in Judo and the individuals were awarded the Kohaku obi at the Kohaku shiai which was an annual Judo competition.

The aka obi (red belt) was introduced added to Judo in 1943 and used to represent practitioners with the highest level of proficiency.

The aka obi, or red belt, has strong ties to a cultural event in Japan called Kanreki (還暦). Kanreki is a ceremony that a person attends when they are newborn, they would wear a red hat and a red vest to show their journey is starting, then again at their 60th birthday the individual would wear the red hat and vest again to show they have lived for 1 full cycle of the zodiac or one full lifetime. It is not uncommon to see people in Japan wearing a red belt after either their 60th birthday or 60 years of training (depending on the organization). The aka obi is really not rank specific but more signifying that the person is a holder of that particular heritage/style and have spent a lifetime training. While some organizations do allow individuals to wear an aka obi before their 60th year, it is usually in a ceremonial context and not something the person should do daily in the dojo.

Professor and Doctor

These two titles seem to happen a lot more in the western world than in Japan, but they roughly come from the same source. The word for a professor is Kyoju (教授), and a classroom teacher is a Kyoshi (教師). This is likely a misinterpretation of the Kyoshi title, audibly 教師 and 教士 sound the same, it is easy to see how this could create some confusion. A doctor is an Ishi (医師) which is probably what is assumed to be a Hanshi since if a Kyoshi (audibly) sounds like a professor, then a Hanshi must be a doctor (by using this same logic).

My personal recommendation is if you don't hold a PhD, please don't call yourself doctor, it is actually misleading, and some could even consider it fraud. Same with professor, if you are teaching in a college and part of the staff (on payroll) then by all means call yourself professor. However, if you are teaching karate out of your garage and work a normal 9 to 5, there is a good chance you aren't on the payroll at any college.


This one is particularly rampant as of late. A Soke (宗家) is a head of household in Japan. This is similar to a power of attorney in the US and some of the rest of the western world. This term also comes into play when you are looking at a Japanese koseki tohon, the soke is the person who is designated to take charge of all the debts and property after the person listed on the koseki dies. If you look at martial arts families that have been doing this for multiple generations, you will see this person is nearly always a blood relative with the exception in rare cases where adoption happened because the person was unable to have children. If anyone claims to be a soke, they need to be able to provide a certified copy of their legal koseki tohon from Japan or else they are committing fraud. In karate styles people try to use this title quite often, and in 99% of the cases it's a misrepresentation of the title. Styles like Gojuryu (Miyagi Toru), Shitoryu (Mabuni Tsukasa), Ryueiryu (Nakaima Kenryo), Uechiryu (Uechi Sadanao), and others all have a legal soke, so anyone claiming this title that isn't in the direct family line and on a legal koseki tohon are making things up. The individual may be the head of their organization (Kaicho 会長 or Kancho 館長), but they are not the soke or head of the family.

Other titles that show up from time to time

- Shidoin (指導員) this is a word used more for an advisor, guide, or mentor.

- Grandmaster - Simply stated this doesn't really exist in Japanese arts, if it did it would likely be any shogo holder. In the game of "go" this is often called a Honinbo (本因坊). Other ambiguous titles such as O-sensei, or O-shihan could also represent this, but both of them really means more like a senior teacher.

- Shuseki (主席) this term comes up from time to time, it really means more like a chief, chairman, or president. This is more of a positional title and not really something anyone should call themselves.

- Saiko Shihan (最高師範) - This is a real title, but it is often really misused. A Saiko Shihan is the most senior instructor within an organization. Usually this title falls to past organizational presidents who no longer want to deal with the organizational duties but are more senior than then current president of the organization. From a style standpoint, this can also be the most senior instructor in the style in the world.

Sensei and Shihan

Sensei (先生) and Shihan (師範), these two tend to get confused quite a bit. A sensei is really what we should all strive to be, it is more of a mentor to someone to get them on the right path. The word sensei means 先 = ahead of, before, previous and 生 = life, birth. So it really means the person who has gone before, so it's really a person who can guide someone based on their experience in a field. A Shihan on the other hand is a 師 = expert, mentor and 範 = model, example. This means a Shihan is more of someone who maintains a standard and is something others can strive to be. Typically, a Shihan is a positional type of title for the senior instructor of a particular school. For example, a Shihan might run a school, but will have several sensei working under them for other classes. So the roles between the two are similar but there is some distinction, especially in terms of seniority. Titles like O-Sensei (大先生) and O-Shihan (大師範) mean more like senior sensei or senior shihan.

Lastly, kohai (後輩) and senpai (先輩). These are two more examples of things that aren't really titles that people keep trying to use as titles. So a kohai and senpai relationship is kind of how people describe where they are at any given time in a field or subject. For example if you are a new person in a karate school, every person who has been there before you is your senpai (senior). You are their kohai (junior). However if you are in a different role, let's say for example at your work, then the new person coming in would be your kohai, and you would be the senpai. These are not really martial arts titles but more like knowing where you stand in any given situation. You should look to your senpai for advice and guidance, but you don't need to refer to the person as Senpai Bob, it's not really a title in that sense.

I hope this has helped clear up some of the mass confusion that is happening out there regarding these titles. If you come from an organization that uses all of this, figure out if it's the right one for you. At the end of the day knowledge is really the key to all of it. Just stay sharp, keep training, and always work to make a better you.

Gambatte Kudasai!!!

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