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Titles in the Martial Arts
From Classical Fighting Arts Magazine Issue 7: The Chinese Characters (Kangi) for the grades (Hanshi, etc.) do not appear here as most PCs are not able to reproduce them correctly. They do however appear in the printed version.

Much of the recent correspondence to our editorial office has related to the proliferation of high dan grades, and the use of titles such as Hanshi, Kyoshi, and Renshi. A great deal of confusion exists in the West about such things, on the one hand because of a lack of any obvious standards for the award of such grades, and on the other, because the standards that do exist, have their roots in feudal Japanese society, and are therefore somewhat obscure, especially to Westerners without a knowledge of Japanese.

In the world of real martial arts, these titles are awarded only to the most deserving. For example, the All Japan Butokukai awarded Chojun Miyagi the founder of Goju Ryu the title of Kyoshi in 1937. Gichin Funakoshi, the Shotokan Patriarch, received Renshi from the same organization in 1938, then Kyoshi in 1943 when its President was none other than Japanese Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander, General Hideki Tojo. They were among only a handful of karate masters to be so honored, a clear indication of the level of respect their technical ability engendered.

Today, however, a search of the internet will reveal thousands of instructors claiming these titles. Should we assume therefore that the standard of karate has dropped dramatically from the time of Miyagi and Funakoshi or, that thousands of modern instructors feel that they have equalled or exceeded the technical expertise of these revered grand masters of karate, which hardly seems likely.

Based on my experience, many who claim to hold the rank of Renshi, Kyoshi, or Hanshi, have little knowledge of the origins of these titles, their significance, or how, and by whom they are legitimately awarded. One has to wonder, given that they know so little about them, how they themselves were honoured!

These titles should only be issued by organizations recognized as being representative of a martial art by a government department, usually the Ministry of Education, or the government itself. Candidates must conform with the basic requirements as far as prior rank, age, and experience are concerned, be of good character, and pass practical and written examinations. As with all official matters in Japan these awards are carefully documented. To prevent fraud, the examiners (a minimum of three, one of whom must be at least two grades above the rank for which the candidate is being considered) sign the certificate, and then a seal is applied, half to the certificate and half to the grade register journal to create a unique impression it would be difficult to falsify.

The widely accepted requirements for elevation to the various levels are as follows:

The highest grade for active instructors in kendo, aikido, karate, judo, kyudo, etc. The candidate must be a person of excellent character and reputation, must have achieved at least 8th dan in a recognized school, have held the rank of Kyoshi for at least ten years, and be at least fifty-five years old. The candidate must also have made a very significant contribution to his art as an author or teacher, for example. This title is considered a prerequisite for higher dan grades and the titles “Meijin”and “Shihan”

A Kyoshi was responsible, in feudal times, for training a squad of soldiers. Candidates must be above forty-five years of age, sixth dan or higher, and have held the rank of Renshi for at least five years. They must be of good character, posses an exceptional level of skill, and undergo strenuous practical and written examinations before receiving the award.

A Renshi is, in an historical sense, a man who leads a group of soldiers by virtue of his superior technical ability. He must be at least thirty five years old, have held the rank of fourth dan for at least two years, and be a person of exceptional physical and mental ability.

After Japan became a Constitutional Monarchy at the end of the Tokugawa period this ranking system replaced the traditional method of awarding a Menkyo Kaiden to students upon their mastery of a martial system. In family based systems, when the most capable student was not a blood relative, he would be formally adopted to continue the family tradition and become the next Soke.

From the above it should be clear that there are very few karate practitioners actually entitled to use these titles. That if they are, they will have a signed, dated, and stamped certificate attesting to the award, that is registered with a government body in Japan or Okinawa. They will have made significant contributions to the art outside of the training hall, have trained under supervision for at least forty years, and have a personal history free of blemishes of any sort.

It should also be taken into consideration that these exalted titles should be far less common in Okinawan karate organizations than in Japanese schools. Many Okinawan ryuha do not recognize this system, viewing it as an invention of the mainland Japanese more appropriately applied to judo, kendo and kyudo—and they are probably right.

The matter in which the claimant uses these titles also gives an indication of his authenticity. They should only be used in official lists relating to martial arts instructors, published books, or scholarly articles written about the holder—never in publicity material. Outside of this they are rarely used by the recipient as this would be considered immodest in Japanese society, and therefore impolite.
One never uses one’s title when speaking in the first person as it is a breach of etiquette that would serve to demonstrate the ignorance of the speaker. If you have trained for forty years in a legitimate martial art, a basic understanding of Japanese etiquette and customs is expected. In Japanese society, physicians and other doctors, lawyers, and other highly educated individuals are addressed as “Sensei,” but never refer to themselves as such. Regardless of rank therefore, the martial arts instructor is always referred to as Sensei.

The most prominent instructor we know has trained for fifty years with excellent teachers and achieved the highest level of ability. He has written books on karate, made training programs on video and DVD, taught extensively throughout the world, led the movement that had Okinawan Goju Ryu recognized as an “ancient martial art” by the Budokan in Tokyo, and is currently engaged in setting up the Okinawan Karate Research Institute and Museum. He was awarded 9th Dan Hanshi by the Okinawan karate authorities when he was in his late fifties.

When he calls our office he says, quite simply, Higaonna desu! This is Higaonna!


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