What’s the deal with all the titles? I’ve heard of senseis, but what are all the others?
Updated: Mar 25
Excellent question! As the martial arts have developed to greater degree in the US, we see more schools using titles such as those you’re referencing. Each association has its own hierarchical arrangement, and the high title in one group might not be as high in a different group. Even non-aligned schools can occassionally be found that make use of titles. Needless to say, the amount of variation that can be found in the ‘martial arts supermarket’ of America can be staggering. Yet, any truly traditional group will have a central authority that sets the position and power of each title, and within such a group, the hierarchy is strictly followed. As a teacher of Kiyojute Ryu, I answer your question from that perspective.
The first thing to note is that there are two ranking structures in Kiyojute Ryu — the Bukai and the Hokai. The bukai are the martial ranks in the system; these are the belt ranks awarded for learning and performance of a certain set of techniques with a given level of proficiency. The hokai, the law ranks or titles, are a separate ranking structure made up of teaching titles. Teaching titles are awarded only by the Ryu’s central authority, the Soke. Consideration for whether or not a student is deserving of a hokai is based upon the Soke’s personal experience with the student and observance of the various intuitions (kan) demonstrated by the student. It is something of an esoteric evaluation, and as such is the sole purview of the Soke.
The next note of importance is to clearly convey that the hokai always supersede the bukai; a second degree black belt with no teaching title would be formally outranked by a first degree brown belt that possessed one. While this may initially seem strange, a philosophical consideration of the matter will do much to illuminate. The most important qualities of the martial artist are the internal ones: patience, benevolence, courage, and love. While a student may learn all the techniques for a given rank, if he lacks these profound qualities, a great void is present in the individual. Thus, the hokai stand as a way of honoring students and teachers for their internal quality and placing them in positions of authority — based upon the heart of the martial artist.
To close, let us briefly look at each title in the hierarchy of the Kiyojute Ryu. They are, in ascending order, sempai, sensei, renshi, kyoshi, shihan, hanshi, shihanke, sokedai, and soke. Sempai means senior; this title implies an older-sibling-like relationship to the other students. They are aids to the teachers and encouragers to the students. Sensei means teacher; this is a teacher who can pass on what he’s been shown and can lead a student toward black belt. Renshi means instructor or polished teacher; this is an instructor who can lead a person to second degree black through his or her understanding of the creativity involved in martial arts practice. Kyoshi means senior instructor or a teacher who has faith and instructional skill. The kyoshi can teach all levels of black belt but can carry the student past mere physical considerations into the realm of the spiritual through his or her own deep faith. Shihan means master, an example for the rest. This person is a model for all students, a master of the fighting arts who lives in a manner consistent with the high ideals of the martial Way. Hanshi means senior master. This is a person who through long years of training has mastered physical skills, creativity, mental focus, self control and all the deeper skills of mind, body and Spirit. Shihanke, a rank as yet unachieved in our Ryu, is master of the house; this high honor will be accorded to those individuals who have mastered all seven arts of Kiyojute Ryu. Soke Dai is the headmaster’s assistant who works the most closely with the Soke in the proliferation of the Ryu’s work. And, finally, Soke is the headmaster of the system. Soke do not make themselves Soke; they are called to the post and appropriately recognized by their direct masters and the martial arts community at large. The teaching of the martial arts is a huge portion of the Soke’s life, and the Soke stands as a minister to the needs of his or her students.
And there you have it! Titles are misunderstood today—>worn by egomaniacs that pinned such high accolades on themselves without any authority or external recognition. In Kiyojute Ryu we honor a succession of title—passing through the years of experience represented by the great masters of antiquity, the direct masters of our master and the Soke’s own profound experience.