Martial arts titles

The dan ranking system in go was devised by Honinbo Dosaku (1645–1702), a professional go player in the Edo period. Prior to the invention, top-to-bottom ranking was evaluated by comparison of handicap and tended to be vague. Dosaku valued the then highest title holder, Meijin at 9 Dan. He was likely inspired by an ancient Chinese go ranking system (9 Pin Zhi) and an earlier court ranking system (nine-rank system), although lower numbers are more senior in those systems.

Dan ranks were transferred to martial arts by Kanō Jigorō (1860–1938), the founder of judo. Kano started the modern rank system in 1883 when he awarded shodan (the lowest dan rank) to two of his senior students (Shiro Saigo and Tsunejiro Tomita). Prior to this, martial arts schools awarded progress with less frequent menkyo licenses or secret scrolls.

There was still no external differentiation between yūdansha (black belt ranks) and mudansha (those who had not yet attained a dan grade). Different athletic departments within the Japanese school system were already using markers of rank, most notably in swimming where advanced swimmers wore a black ribbon around their waists. Kano adopted the custom of having his yūdansha wear black obi (belts) in 1886.

At that time, these obi were not the belts karateka and jūdōka wear today; the students were still practicing in kimono. They wore the wide obi still worn with formal kimono. In 1907, Kano invented the modern keikogi (practice uniform in the color), and belts in white for mudansha and black for yudansha. The system of colored junior belts was introduced by Mikonosuke Kawaishi in Europe in 1935. The basic progression of the colors and tip colors (e.g., white → yellow → green → blue → brown → black) facilitated dyeing the same belt

Ranks in Japanese

Many arts use between one and ten dan ranks:

In some arts, black belts are worn at all dan levels. In other arts, the highest rank (10th dan) wears a red colored belt. In Judo, 6th to 8th dan wear a red and white patterned belt, 9th and 10th wear a solid red belt.

In many styles shodan implies that all the basics of the style have been mastered. At sandan, the student is deemed capable of teaching independently as a teacher or instructor, often called sensei. At Godan, the budōka may receive certification as a master level practitioner (Shidōin). Generally, the lower dan ranks are validated on the basis of knowledge and physical skill. The higher the dan rank, the more leadership ability, teaching experience, and service to the style play a role in promotion. In British judo, to gain promotion from 1st to 5th Dan, judo players must demonstrate theoretical technique and competitive skill in graded competitions. Promotions from 6th to 10th Dan are awarded for services to the sport of judo.

Sensei (先生)

Sensei is a Japanese word that is literally translated as "person born before another". In general usage, it is used, with proper form, after a person's name, and means "teacher", and the word is used as a title to refer to or address teachers, professors, professionals such as lawyers, CPA and doctors, politicians, clergymen, and other figures of authority. The word is also used to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or some other skill: accomplished puppeteers, novelists, musicians, and artists for example are addressed in this way.

The two characters that make up the term can be directly translated as "born before" and implies one who teaches based on wisdom from age and experience. The word prefaced by the adjective 大, pronounced "dai" (or "ō"), which means "great" or "large", is often translated "grand master". This compound term, "dai-sensei", is sometimes used to refer to the top sensei in a particular school or tradition, particularly within the iemoto system.

Senpai and kōhai

Senpai (先輩) and kōhai (後輩) are terms applied to the mentor system in wide use in Japanese culture; often found at all levels of education, in sports clubs, businesses, and informal or social organizations. The relationship is an essential element of Japanese seniority-based status relationships, similar to the way that family and other relationships are decided based on age, in which even twins may be divided into elder and younger siblings. The senpai is roughly equivalent to the Western concept of a mentor, while kōhai is roughly equivalent to protégé, though they do not imply as strong a relationship as these words mean in the West. More simply, these may be translated as senior and junior, or as an elder compared with someone younger in the family/company/organization; the terms are used more widely than a true mentor/protégé in the West applied to all members of one group that are senior (the senpai) to all the members of another group (the kōhai). There is usually no average separation in age between a senpai and his or her kōhai.

A junior student will often refer to senior students as "senpai", and alumni will often refer to alumni from earlier classes as "senpai". This holds true particularly if events bring them together later on, such as joining the same company, serving on a board together, or simply being in a club or parent's organization at the same time.

On rare occasions, a younger person may also be considered the senpai of an elder person if circumstances dictate—such as if the elder entered an organization or company at a later time than the younger did.

Shihan (師範) is a Japanese term, often used in Japanese martial arts as an honorific title for expert or senior instructors. The term is frequently used interchangeably with English terms such as "master instructor".

Various martial arts organizations have different requirements for the usage of the title, but in general it is a high title, 4th dan,[1] that takes many years to achieve. It is sometimes associated with certain rights, such as the right to give out black belt (dan) ranks in the name of the organization. However, the title is generally distinct from the black belt ranking system (dan'i).

The use of the term is completely style or organization specific, as is the process of becoming a shihan. Within the Bujinkan it has been said that you become a shihan when the other shihan start calling you a shihan. although in other organizations it is achieved with obtaining a particular higher dan grade. In other organizations, for example Shodokan Aikido, the title is organizational and less strongly correlated to rank.


Renshi (錬士 : れんし?): Polished Instructor. (Skilled person or expert teacher) Awarded to 5th Dan and above.


Kyōshi (教士 : きょうし?) refers to an advanced teacher. (Senior Teacher/Expert). Awarded to 6th Dan and above.


Hanshi (範士 : はんし?) refers to a senior expert considered a "teacher of teachers". This title is used by many different arts for the top few instructors of that style, and is sometimes translated "Grand Master". Awarded to 8th Dan and above.

Soke is the title used to indicate the Head of a style/Ryu. In any Ryu there is only one Soke. It is inherited not awarded. Those inheriting the Soke title are the highest authority for the style.

Contrary to popular belief the Soke title does not mean that the new Soke is instantly a 10th dan. In fact the Soke may inherit the title at any rank. The lowest ranked person to inherit a ryu and become a Soke was Shogo Kuniba. He inherited the Motobu-Ha-Shito-Ryu at the age of 21. At the time he was 5th dan.

Although the Soke holds a belt rank he is considered to be “beyond the rank system”. As such the Soke can award any rank to anyone even if the rank he awards is higher than his own. Usually when someone becomes Soke he is not the oldest or most experienced student of the Ryu. He may continue to train from the most senior students in the ryu. Those students are still under the Sokes authority regardless. The traditional martial arts styles look out for each other. If a new Soke is worthy of promotion Soke from other organizations/styles may get together and issue credentials awarding the new Soke a higher rank. In this way the rank system of traditional martial arts is preserved.

This title is rarely used. It means Great-Sensei. It is used to indicate a senior master that is greatly respected.