Titles in the Martial Arts

Excerpted from Ashihara Karate's - Preparing for Black Belt Manual
Courtesy of Kaicho Hoosain Narker

Becoming Shodan is somewhat equivalent to graduating from high school. One still has college to endure if one wishes to learn more about the art. Two years of college would perhaps be like "Nidan" or "second level" student. If one completes college, one might be "Sandan". With that level of skill and knowledge one can begin to teach, but there is still graduate school ahead if one means to truly master the art.

At Sandan level, one is recognised as a Sensei. Sensei is a title used and means teacher or "one who has gone before". If one goes on to earn a master's degree, one would be "Yondan". And if one keeps studying until he/she earns a doctorate, he/she would be "Godan". One would then be a master of the art. Thus, Yondan and Godan are the "Renshi" grades, those at which one finally becomes a teacher as well as a student.

At Godan level one is awarded the title of Shihan. The title loosely translated means Master. But there are those for whom even the doctorate is not the end of their studies. They serve internships, go on to post-doctoral studies, do research and make new discoveries about their art. They contribute to their art by their wisdom. These are the "Kyoshi" grades, the Grandmaster grades of Rokudan and higher. Another title, which is awarded, is that of Hanshi. This is granted to recognise outstanding dedication and leadership.


Advanced Martial Arts Titles


In Bujitsu (martial arts) or Geido (way of accomplishments), the master bestows all of his secrets and the heart of his teaching to only one disciple. The recipient of these doctrines is granted permission to instruct and transfer the style of his art, and he is called Menkyo Kaiden. "Menkyo" means a person who is permitted to perform a specific duty by an authority, such as a government entity or legislative body. In Budo, the founder or teacher confers his techniques and heartfelt teachings, through an official licensing process, to one pupil. " Kaiden" means that the teacher grants the fullness of his knowledge to his successor. Menkyo Kaiden thus means 'A founder of a discipline or style conferring his knowledge. Technique and teachings to a chosen student, who then becomes the teacher's successor in that style'.


The Soke is referred to as iemoto in non-martial arts groups. In Budo, the Soke is the lineal descendent of a kinsman or family, and is also called sohhonke or honke. In geido the sohke has obligation and duties to the house in which he was born, and is expected to carry on the founder's or successors knowledge and teachings, and even to expand it. For contemporary sohke in the martial arts, this implies that the sensei must first develop a system of sensible, understandable concepts, both technical and spiritual, in order to pass them on. According to an old anecdote, the passing on of knowledge from a teacher to his successor is like leaves falling on a crad: the leaves ignite and spread the flame. In the same sense, the successors imagination becomes like a candle. The important thing is for the sohke to take over his predecessor 's teachings and thoughts faithfully.


The Hanshi is the highest tide in the active budoka, granted by licence to a martial artist from a high authority, such as a government body or some other remarkable organization. (The supreme title of "Meijin" is very rarely granted by the government or the supreme entity.) In Dai Nippon Butokukai in Kyoto before and during World War II, the organisation awarded the title of Hanshi (along with Kyoshi and Renshi, see below) to certain practitioners in Aikido, Kendo, Judo, Karatedo, Kyudo, Taido and other Martial Arts. Until 1946, the Butokukai also engaged in this practise. The All Japan Kendo Association conferred the title for a practitioner's dedication, leadership, facilitation, and the development of the art, but only after the practitioner had achieved highest ranking of 8th Dan while being an active practitioner, gen eki. A person who receives the title of Hanshi can also, with proper certification, be called "Shihan."


a person who trains a group of soldiers is called "Kyoshi" or "Kanshi". In traditional Budo, Bujitsu, Kendo, Judo, and other Budo circles, the Butokukai grades this rank for deserving participants above 6th Dan who pass a physical and mental examination.


The Ren is a soldier who leads other soldiers through training. According to old documents on ethical theory, Renshi refers to a member of a discipline who is recognised for his expertise in that discipline. The title is conferred to practitioners above 4th Dan who display excellence in both technical and mental capability. The Renshi title is the first step on the road towards Kyoshi, Hanshi, and possibly Meiji.

Summary of Definitions in Contemporary Budo Shohgo Concepts: 

Hanshi: 8th Dan or above with 10 years after Kyoshi and above 55 years 
Kyoshi: 6th Dan and above with 5 years after Renshi and above 45 years of age 
Renshi: 4th Dan and above with 2 years after 4th Dan and above 35 years of age.
These titles are granted to deserving individuals within particular disciplines only after a prolonged and severe examination and evaluation. These ranks are highly dignified, and must be earned, rather than lightly granted.