featured photo: Chris Willson Photography / Karate Masters Portrait Project

There are many things that we, westerners, do not understand about Japanese culture and society. We find everything exciting and tend to copy without questioning. Or, what is worse, we accept something as real when someone gives us any information. Language is one of (if not the main) culprit.

The many titles of a “Karate Master.”

Yes, we already talked about the different karate belt colours and their meanings, but the hole is much deeper. Remember that Japan has a very hierarchical society, and karate will not be any different.

There are many terms people use to refer to a seasoned karateka (including karate master). Sensei, Shihan, Seito, Renshi, Hanshi; Most of them are misused — hopefully for lack of knowledge, but perhaps by pure mischief. But why is that?

Master or Mastery?

To start, we wanted to point out that most of this problem may be caused by a simple translation problem or lousy usage of English terms. 

The term “karate master” implies someone that mastered the skills, the technique — someone with mastery in the subject.

However, many of the titles you will see below talk about a master’s degree. Just like in university, you can obtain a master’s in the martial arts you train — at least in Japan. And the process of doing so is very tough and complicated.

Tetsuhiko Asai, a rare case of a Master with Mastery

It is time to clarify this issue once and for all. First, we address the standard designations used in karate for everyday use. Later on, we will go through what you need to do to call yourself a master in karate.

Common Designations

Seito [生徒]: The student, the disciple. 

Seito is the one receiving lessons from the teacher and respect and dedicates themselves to hard training.

Sensei [先生]: The one who came before.

Contrary to many’s beliefs, sensei is a ubiquitous word in Japanese, and it does not mean “teacher,” but rather “the one who was born before.” 

Japanese uses the term to designate people with more experience in a variety of areas; Professors, teachers, doctors, lawmakers, politicians, clergymen all can be sensei.

In karate, sensei is the one responsible for transmitting knowledge inside the dōjō — the person in charge of the place. The sensei is the maximum authority inside the dōjō. The legend says that even emperors would respect this premise.

Shihan [師範]: The master, the role model.

A shihan is a highly-ranked, remarkable instructor that largely contributed to karate during their life and is respected as a person to be followed. Someone with such designation usually has several sensei (instructors) under his apprenticeship. 

In Japan, the title of Shihan can equate to a university degree, and only the Chief Instructors Association (Shidoin/Shihan-kai) or the Administrative Board can issue such certificate — and only after a series of virtues and qualifications have been assessed and accreditated.

The Dai Nippon Butou Kai, the same that established the various rules and policies every martial art should follow in Japan, also installed the Shou-gou [称号], a system of titles and designations to masters.

Only after a very long process of examining and presenting documents, going through background checks and other steps the title is then issued and validated.

masters of karate

How many levels can a master have?

Although “master” or shihan might sound enough for our westerner ears, there are three official levels of accreditation a person can obtain. And they are not easily attainable.

Renshi [錬士]: A polished person. 

To obtain the title of Renshi, you need 6th dan or more and at least 40 years of age. Then you need to present research (kenkyu) on a specific technique, skill, or on the philosophical teachings of your discipline. This title equates to a bachelor’s degree.

Kyoshi [教士]: A person who teaches.

To be a candidate for this certification, you need 7th dan or more, 48 years of age and have held the title of Renshi for at least six years. With that, you still need to present a dissertation about your discipline. If approved, the documents are sent to a select committee for final approval — once this certification is the same as a master’s degree.

Hanshi [範士]: The exemplary person.

You can finally call yourself a master, as this is the highest available ranking. To be a Hanshi, you need 8th dan, 58 years of age, have held the Kyoshi title for at least eight years and defend a thesis in your field of study — your martial art. Like a Kyoshi title, after approval, everything is sent to a committee for certification. This title equals to a Ph.D.

But what about shotokan? The official titles of a shotokan master.

The following are the handwritten rules* by Tetsuhiko Asai concerning the shihan title.

Translation:

The title of Karate-dō Shihan bestowed and can only be granted to a high-ranked individual (7th dan or more) with special permission from the Shuseki Shihan — chief instructor; at JKS, a title previously held by Tetsuhiko Asai and currently held by Masao Kagawa. Also:

  1. Can attend a certification seminar for the Shihan title;
  2. Complete the examination and acquire the certification/proof of completion; and
  3. Officially obtains the authenticated certification (inkajo) with the title of shihan.

Last words from Asai:

Tetsuhiko Asai looking serious and pointing his finger
Tetsuhiko Asai

The main objective of a Karate Shihan is to empower and advance other people’s spirits, especially to train the youth to become better members of our society. This is an important duty, and that’s why the certification process to become a shihan is so strict. One cannot just avoid taking a severe exam then make a group to carry out the certification exam and issue certificates.

* These rules were developed for the Internation Japan Karate Bujutsu Association – IJKA, another association founded by Tetsuhiko Asai.

Original text developed by Tiago Frosi sensei from the Shinjigenkan Institute Brazil. Revision and adaptation to English: Gui Haupenthal.