Ranks and titles in the martial arts can be confusing and intimidating. But, they aren't meant to be. They are useful in recognizing who is the most experienced or highly honored in the room. Ranks are earned with hard work, sweat and years of practice.
Honorary titles are given to esteemed practitioners out of respect for what they contribute to the martial arts and for the level of responsibility they have in the organization.
It is good reishiki or manners in the dojo to respect rank and title. Think of it as honoring a special dignitary in your home. Although a distinguished guest is usually humble enough to not expect special treatment, it's polite to honor them.
For new students it can be confusing understanding the etiquette of the dojo. There are many different ranks and titles. The title heard in most dojos is Sensei. Pronounced as "sin say" it means "teacher" and is usually reserved for black belts who are authorized to teach classes. Though, not all black belts are called Sensei. Typically, a black belt must have attained a 3rd or 4th dan to be recognized as an instructor. A dan, sometimes called a degree is represented by stripes on the belt. Think of it as the level of experience and training that a Black Belt has. In traditional martial arts dojos, stripes are hard earned through years of training. There are ten degrees of black belt. Once a person attains 5th dan and higher they are considered a master. Master ranks are often represented with different types of red belts. In Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu we use the Red and white striped belt for 5th and 6th Dans, red and black striped for 7th and 8th Dans and solid red for 9th and 10th Dans. But, these master ranks may also choose to wear a solid black belt.
There are also additional titles that may be used. To simplify, here is the basic hierarchy in Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu:
KAIDEN is the Family Elder
SHIHAN is the Family Senior
SENSEI is the Family Junior
STUDENT is the Family Member
Titles for different ranks may be awarded at 4th Dan.
YONDAN (4th Dan) = RENSHI
GODAN (5th Dan) = RENSHI
ROKUDAN (6th Dan) = KYOSHI
NANADAN (7th Dan) = KYOSHI
HACHIDAN (8th Dan) = HANSHI
KYUDAN (9th Dan) = HANSHI
JUDAN (10th Dan) = KAICHO
Below I have outlined and defined many of the ranks, titles and honors that may be used in a traditional dojo.
KYU Grade: A rank designation for all colored belts under black belt.
DAN Degree: A rank designation for first to tenth degree black belt.
MUDANSHA: One without degree - A student not yet at black belt.
YUDANSHA: Black belt holder - A title designating rank of first to tenth degree black belt.
DESHI: Disciple or trainee - A student regardless of rank.
KOHAI: Junior - A beginning student.
SEMPAI: Senior Student - used to signify a black belt who is not yet a teacher. Usually, this is for 1st-3rd dans. The title may be given to brown belts if no black belts are present.
SENSEI: Teacher or instructor - A black belt qualified to teach. Usually awarded at 4th dan but may be authorized for lower black belt ranks if they are teaching.
SHIHAN: Master teacher - Instructor of very high rank, sixth degree or above.
HONORARY TITLES (Not all receive titles)
RENSHI: Polished expert - Discipled self to a master & is a highly qualified teacher. Usually a 4th Dan or higher.
TASHI: Great teacher about 7th dan. A teacher of the art with special dedication to one's teaching.
KYOSHI: Senior instructor a.k.a. faith teacher. Has learned and contributed a dedicated proponent of the ryu. A sixth or seventh degree black belt.
HANSHI: Master Teacher of teachers - A respected master of eighth to tenth degree black belt. Senior master/exemplary teacher.
SOKE-DAI (pronounced So-ka-die) is the Assistant Head of Family. This position is honorary and is selected by the Soke to help with administration and to lead the organization after the Soke can no longer do so.
SOKE (Pronounced So-ka) is the head of the Family. This is typically the highest ranking member of the organization. Our Soke is Harold Mead, 10th Dan.
More on the significance of the Soke and Soke-Dai was written in a previous blog.
O'SENSEI: Great instructor - Highest master within a system.
KAICHO: Master of the house - Senior master of a system.
MEIJIN: Expert - One who has mastered an art beyond the boundaries of physical prowess. Wise man of high spiritual level. Advanced age. Special dedication to the art.
MENKYO-KAIDEN: A certificate of full proficiency in a Japanese martial art.
Some members of the dojo may have multiple titles. If you are ever unsure how to address certain people in the dojo ask your Sensei.
Vashon Borich, Sensei teaches traditional karate & kobudo in Branson, Missouri. She considers herself a life-time student of the arts. Her blog is an open journal of lessons learned in the martial arts. If you are a martial artist and would like to contribute to her blog please contact her.
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