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What Title Should I Use...If There Is One?

by Steven Franz, Editor

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Today the use of titles in martial arts is so popular that almost everyone either has earned one or lays claim to one. About a year ago I met a gentleman who claimed the title of Soke. Soke is a title that is reserved for people who have either developed a new system (Shodai Soke) or have inherited a system of martial arts from the founder after that person retired or passed on. It was clear this gentleman had no idea of the proper use of the title Soke, nor was even close to be qualified to have it.

Titles in the martial arts are more or less treated like an award today. Some people lay claim to titles they have earned, while others just call themselves whatever they wish because it makes them feel important. I can remember never hearing any of the titles used when I first began training in the 1970's. A black belt was called Sensei, or if they were high enough rank they were called Master. It was as simple as that. I am not sure why we, as Americans, feel that we must lay claim to titles in our studies of the martial arts but I believe it has to do with something that martial arts masters are to be without...ego and pride. In order to understand the meanings behind titles and proper use you have two options in your studies. First train with an accredited dojo that has earned them and thus you will learn their use and reason properly, or secondly you can research them and pick one you like. Keep in mind that true martial artists do not respect titles but rather people, skill levels and knowledge above anything we may call ourselves or wear around our waist.

Sensei - The One Who Comes Before

This is perhaps the most misunderstood title in martial arts. When I first began training it was not uncommon to hear a brown belt leading class referred to as Sensei. Everyone just assumed it meant teacher back then. In reality a Sensei is anyone who has come before you in your training. It is a term used to refer to another martial artist with respect. For example if you began in 1984 and another student in your dojo began in 1983, technically they are your Sensei. Most people argue that is not the case and have began using the Sempai (senior) / Kohai (junior) titles in their relationship. They have done this since the term Sensei is usually reserved for Dan rank members of any system or dojo.

Renshi - Polished / Tempered Person

Renshi quite literally means a polished or tempered person in reference to their level of martial arts training. This in turn indicates that the student has now become a polished, or master instructor. A Renshi certificate is almost as common as a Sensei title but keep in mind that it is to never be given out for anyone lower than a 4th or 5th dan since those closely associated with the term master in martial arts.

Kyoshi - Professor

A Kyoshi is the equivalent of being a Professor. Professors are specialist in their teaching of a particular subject and its materials. The term Kyoshi is typically reserved for 6th to 7th Dan black belts who have dedicated themselves to teaching the Ryu. In essence a Kyoshi who teaches many Ryu actually is not a Kyoshi at all since a professor needs to be acutely skilled in the topics they are teaching others.

Hanshi - Model Teacher

When one is respected, learned and leads by example they sometimes earn the title of Hanshi. A Hanshi is typically an 8th degree or above black belt that is the ideal of what students should aspire to with in their Ryu. The are the exact example of what is expected of students who aspire to attain this rank. This title is never given out lightly since the martial arts are very demanding both morally and physically. I have yet to meet a Hanshi under the age 35 that would be someone who deserve the titles.

Shihan - Expert Instructor

Shihan is more than likely the senior expert of a system. It is not uncommon for more than one Shihan to exist in a system. There is no definition for this title and no set way of earning it. In Japan it is often stated "you become a Shihan when other Shihan begin referring to you in that title".

Soke - The Founder

Today Soke is one of the most disrespected and misused terms in the martial arts. Many people take a few years of one system and then another and eventually claim they have created their own "new" martial art. Although I agree that you can create a Ryu, the requirements are very strict and your system must be proved through the test of time...not skill as many would believe. In the 30 plus years I have met so many Soke that they would not even fit in my own 2,500 square foot dojo. What is more important to note is that I have watched many of them disappear or their system go away. One can also become a Soke if the founder of the system gives them that right as their inheritor of the Ryu. A authentic Soke title is very hard to come by and most people / associations will hand this out for the right amount of money...even if you are not qualified to use it.

There are many more titles used in the martial arts. Everything from Meijin to Kancho, but their use as I see it is to make a person sound more "official". I am sure there are people out there, and I have met many, that deserve the respect associated with an official title but until we realize as martial artists that being an instructor is not about titles, rank or what not we will never truly grasp the understanding of the martial arts. I have six titles, all earned, all certified and I still go by Sensei or Master today. It just doesn't make sensei to feel the need for more official than these two. After all can one truly master the martial arts?