GM of the GM (Grandmasters)

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Often I watch what is happening in the martial art world in the US, and most of the time I sit back and either quietly eat my popcorn, or I watch in pure horror with everything that is going on.  My current quandary is over all of these folks that seem to be coming out of the woodwork using titles that they didn’t earn or are completely made up.  Case in point is people addressing themselves as “Master” and “Grandmaster”, and from this they are also forcing their students (who don’t know better) to continue the charade.  Is this pure ego at work, or has the teachings been watered down to this level where absolute nonsense flies at truth?

So this is purely looking at this issue as a Okinawan/Japanese stylist.  So within Okinawan and Japanese karate here is how things work.

Unlike the Korean martial arts, the Okinawan/Japanese arts don’t wear stripes on their belts to designate rank.  The stripes are in correlation to teaching titles (instructor licenses) that have been awarded within an organization to that individual.  Many of the more prominent groups actually fall under government backed entities, like through the department of education or another legitimate government backer.

Within different organizations different rules and standards are adhered to when granting an instructor license.  What follows is a common rank to title example.

6th Dan – Rokudan –  Renshi - 錬士 (Polished Teacher) – 1 stripe
7th Dan to 8th Dan – Kyoshi -  教士 (Model Teacher) – 2 stripes
9thDan to 10th Dan – Hanshi - 範士 (Senior Teacher) – 3 stripes

The Kyoshi (教士) title is similar to the kyoshi (教師) profession, which simply means “teacher”.

If someone has one of these titles they are NEVER addressed by the title.  When it’s written, like on business cards it should be the very last thing that is mentioned, or even left off completely.  The quality of what a person can do on the floor should be all the proof that anyone needs.  Not using titles that the individual doesn’t understand.

Also it should be noted that not everyone has a title, it is not an automatic thing and there are typically additional requirements to earn the title.

There is a lot of confusion about the Shihan title.  Shihan (師範) means a chief instructor.  If someone is running a school and has a senior instructor as well as junior instructors, the senior instructor of that school would be the shihan.

Kaicho (会長), and Kancho (館長) are somewhat similar titles.  A Kaicho is in charge of an organization, and a Kancho is in charge of a school/building (kan).  Some individuals, like Kanazawa Hirokazu sensei, use the title Kancho for his SKIF organization.

Soke (宗家) is the most abused title out there.  Ok for someone to be a soke (which means an inheritor) they need to actually inherit the person’s household.  This is noted on a legal document in Japan called a koseki.  A soke is also responsible for the family’s taxes and census reporting.  It is more of a legal term for inheritance, and if someone is claiming to be the inheritor they need to prove it via koseki or else what they are doing is committing fraud (or tax evasion in Japan).

Example of where to find a soke on a koseki.

Individuals in Japan who claim to be a soke are typically highly vetted and there is no doubt that the individual was the inheritor and now the head of the household for the family they are representing.

Some people claim that they are the inheritor of a system via adult adoption.  This is complete and total nonsense.  In Japan the adopted children are often not reflected on the family koseki in any type of way that would signify their status as being eligible to inherit anything.  If the person adopts someone and passes away, all of their children stated on the koseki have precedence over the adopted person.  If there are no other children, the next of kin will have the precedence before the adopted child.

If you see anyone under 60 wearing a red belt, this individual is instantly suspect.  Red belts deal with a process in Japan called kanreki ().  Kanreki is when a person has lived 1 complete zodiac cycle (often recognized as 1 lifetime).  This means that using the Chinese zodiac everything should cycle back to the same point as where you were born.  This is designated by the individual wearing a red vest for their birthday signifying that they have lived 1 full lifetime (zodiac cycle).   In karate typically a person who has trained for 60 years in one style get the right to wear the red belt to signify a lifetime of training.

Nowhere anywhere is there a mention of a master or grandmaster in any of the Okinawan/Japanese systems.  Only teachers and chief instructors.  Anyone using one of these is purely trying to stroke their own ego.

Always remember the greatest title that anyone can be called is sensei.  That means that you are that person’s direct teacher and they respect you as being a person who has gone before and points them in the right direction to truly grow as a martial artist.

Gambatte Kudosai!