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Sensei, Shihan, Renshi - What's In A Name?

A senior kyu grade that is occasionally asked to help younger or lower graded students in the dojo is called Sempai which refers to being a mentor to students or assistant to the instructor. It is a term rarely used nowadays but to assist in the dojo is usually expected from all higher ranked kyu grades and is a valuable part of their development.


Once a student has passed his Shodan (Black belt 1st degree grading) he may go on to actually take an occasional class. As a matter of respect, in CFTS all black belts are referred to as Sensei. Unless only occasionally assisting, to instruct regularly he or she must undergo complimentary related training. This includes a six month probationary period to ensure they are to continue training with the correct attitude and respect of students. Once the probationary period is over a black belt must then fulfil criteria laid down by the Martial Arts Standards Agency and complete a MASA/CFTS portfolio of evidence proving they know the CFTS syllabus and have attended various training courses to assist them and to undergo a CRB/DBS check.

The potential instructor is also taught and assessed on matters such as dojo etiquette, methods of instruction, 1st Aid, Child protection /safeguarding, Health & Safety, Risk Assessments as well as lesson planning. Once the portfolio and all related training has been passed to a satisfactory standard, potential instructors then undergo teaching assessments in a class situation on all aspects of karate tuition. If satisfactory the instructor is then registered with CFTS / MASA as an instructor and is covered by £10m insurance. He or she may now officially be called an instructor or Sensei. In days gone by, this would usually be at the rank of 3rd Dan but with the progression of karate this is undertaken much earlier now in one’s karate journey.

Sensei is an honorific term originating in China. It is translated to “one who has been before” but, in general use, taken to mean teacher. ”One who has been before” means that whatever the colour of your belt, your instructor, or Sensei, has been there. Therefore they should have true understanding and empathy. If a student is struggling to learn a move, sequence or kata they can assist in a more positive and understanding way. In the orient the title of Sensei can also be used outside of martial arts to refer to or to address the clergy, lawyers, doctors or other professionals indeed anyone of high rank as a mark of respect who has achieved a high level of skill in their field. In CFTS a Dan grade that has been registered as an instructor may be invited to take the Nidan (2nd Level) black belt after a minimum of two years' training after achieving Shodan.


After approximately 15 years from taking the initial black belt, providing the Dan-grade is still both training and teaching, it is possible to be invited to take Godan (5th Level Black belt). One part of this grading is to take a course on an innovative, yet traditional, aspect of Shotokan Karate. Providing all goes well and the black belted instructor passes their grading, they may be awarded the title Shihan by their instructor. It is usual for a 'Shihan' to be aged 40 years or more. This is an honorary title which roughly translates to senior or master instructor. There are some arts or styles of karate that award this title at the grade of 4th Dan, yet it is rare. Shihan in everyday life is equivalent to a doctorate or master’s degree.


At 6th Dan or beyond the title of Renshi may be awarded by an instructor’s peers or seniors which means polished instructor, or polished expert, having many years’ experience and knowledge and normally above the age of 50. The next step, at 7th Dan, (aged 60 years or more) is Kyoshi which means “teacher of teachers”.


After a further 10 years of training and teaching, an instructor, usually of 70 or more years, may receive the title of Hanshi which is a chief instructor of a local school or association. The term or title Soke is the absolute head of the style such as with Shotokan 10th Dan Kanazawa Hirokazu (Born 3rd May 1931).

Alternatively the term Kancho may be used. Kan meaning house or dojo and Cho meaning head of. So therefore Kancho means head of the house or absolute head of the school or style.

Funakoshi Gichin would be referred to as Shodai-Soke as he was the founder of our style and whom it is named after. It is worth pointing out though that Funakoshi himself during his lifetime accepted no titles or rank even though he was the technical head and chairman of the JKA.

All of the above named honorific titles were traditionally bestowed by the Dai Nippon Butokai in Kyoto along with menkyo (a formal licence being proof of correct transmission and understanding by the holder of their chosen art form).


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