In Karate (or just Budo in general) there exists a strong concept of ranks and titles.
Of course, this can vary quite a bit from school to school, teacher to teacher, organization to organization, but it’s basically the same everywhere.
From the beginning there were no ranks or titles.
There was a teacher, and students.
Over time, when things started to expand, it became harder to teach without some kind of system. Especially in Karate, which wasn’t that organized to begin with. So, to see exactly where people were in their journey of Karate, ranks and titles were introduced.
The “dan” concept (known as the black belt rank, like 1st dan, 2nd dan and so on) was developed during the 17th century by the Buddhist monk Dosaku. Believe it or not, he was actually a grandmaster of the Japanese game Go (an advanced Asian board game), and to establish some system for handicap (like in golf), he developed the dan system. Dan simply means grade in Japanese (the kyu system was a later invention). The dan-ranking system was established around 1650-1700.
The system lasted until about 1880, when a large Go-organization wanted to change a little. They abolished the dan-system and introduced the kyu-system! 9th dan became 1st kyu and 1st dan became 9th kyu.
“Sorry, this is really confusing!” thought the professional Go-players, and I agree. So they protested, and 11 years later it was changed back to the dan-system (again).
Okay, so that was some general history of the ranking system.
Now how did this system transfer from a board game to the martial arts?
Well, the common belief is that Mr. Kano Jigoro, the founder of (Kodokan) Judo, invented the dan/kyu system. But, as we now know, he didn’t. Instead, in 1883, Kano adapted the swimming ranking-system used in Japanese schools. By using that as the foundation, he developed the dan/kyu system for Judo which we are using today in Karate. Clever!
But is it any good?
Well, not all people think that. Your rank is shown by your belt, or more exactly your belt color. And today that doesn’t say much. Different standards around the world means a black belt somewhere can equal a blue belt somewhere else. A green belt here is a brown belt there. And even though the red belt is considered the “highest” in Japan and Okinawa, in other countries it is a kyu grade!
What once was a “golden standard” is now a complete mess!
Maybe the belt should just be used for tying together the gi after all? Well, whatever people think or say, the ranking system is sometimes very handy and practical, and it would be much harder without it. I even think there would be a lot fewer people training today if it wasn’t for belts… Go figure.
So what about the titles?
The titles of Karate were once introduced by the Dai Nippon Butokukai. That was the national authority of Karate in Japan at the time, and means the Greater Japanese Martial Virtue Society. They still exist today, but you can hardly call them the governing body of Karate in Japan. They handle all sorts of Budo, not just Karate, and a long time ago they decided upon some fancy titles that you could acquire.
The most common titles used today would maybe be these:
A shido-in is a formally recognized instructor, who has not yet been recognized as a “real” sensei. More accurately the term describes an assistant instructor. The word shido means “to guide”, and in means roughly “member”. A person who guides members (of the club)! Usually given at 3rd dan.
A renshi is considered an “expert instructor”, or a person who has “mastered himself”. A “teacher by example”, or something along those lines. Renshi is not that common, some organizations actually skip this step. Renshi is usually given at 4th dan to 6th dan.
Kyoshi is actually the common word in Japan for a “teacher”, or a “professor”. Not to be confused with the word sensei which has a different and more complex meaning. Just remember that you never use sensei about yourself, only when referring to others. Anyway, kyoshi is very common outside the martial arts too. Often conferred at 6th dan or 7th dan.
A very formal title, meaning approximately “master instructor”. A shihan is in short a “teacher of teachers”, and is given at around 7th to 8th dan. Widely used.
If you flip the letters of shihan you get what? Hanshi, that’s right. Considered the highest title of all, it is a formal honorary title given to the highest person in a organization, signifying their (complete?) understanding of the art. Used in 9th dan to 10th dan.
There are some other titles too, in short:
Jiki-deshi: Direct student
Uchi-deshi: Live-in student
Mago-deshi: The student of a Jiki-deshi (lit.grandchild student)
Fuku-shidoin: Almost an assistant instructor
Dai-sempai: A school’s most senior student
Kancho: Chief of the dojo (often used)
Kaicho: Chief of the organization (often used)
Soke: A head of the family/house/style (rare title even in Japan)
Something important to know when reading about titles and ranks, is that they are often two separate issues. Although I indicated above at which ranks the titles are often given, it is not set in stone.
The rank (dan/kyu) is mainly for your “physical” competency, skill, time in grade, etc. Title on the other hand focuses more on pedagogical skill, maturity etc, and is often not related directly to physical skill at all.
There are actually many more titles, and even more ranks (like the mon-system for kids), and it can sometimes be hard to distinguish fake from true. A diploma is not hard to get these days.
Skill, on the other hand, is.
Because you don’t get it, you earn it.
So, I believe the easiest way to determine somebody’s level is to just see past the title and rank.
I’m sure you agree.