General – Spirit Made Steel Martial Arts

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The Shogo FAQ – The Meanings of Renshi, Kyoshi, Hanshi and Shihan

What does [Renshi/Kyoshi/Hanshi/Shihan] mean?

In addition to the kyu/dan (underbelt/black belt) ranking system used by most Japanese martial arts, there is a parallel system called shogo (称号). The word loosely translates into English as title or rank. In this context, title is a bit more accurate. These titles are awarded only to dan (black belt) level martial artists – typically at high dan levels. Their primary purpose is to show that in addition to being a good martial artist, the individual is also a good teacher.

The shogo titles are independent of dan level and do not effect it. In other words, a promotion to one of these titles does not raise the practitioners dan level. However, there is a relationship between the two in that most organizations that use them impose minimum dan level requirements in order to earn the shogo titles. Earning the minimum rank is not enough. The teacher must also be nominated and approved for the title. Typically, they are awarded to teachers who have given something back to the organization he belongs to.

The three commonly used shogo titles are renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi. Some organizations will use the title shihan instead of hanshi. Other organizations will use the title shihan in addition to hanshi, independently of the formal shogo system. And because there are so many martial arts organizations, there are many different rules for receiving these titles. Yes, it can get a little confusing!

Renshi belt

Renshi (錬士)

Renshi literally means “polished teacher.” It is the first, or lowest, of the shogo titles. In many organizations this requires a minimum rank of godan (5th degree black belt), although others will award it at yondan (4th degree black belt). I even know of one organization that would award it at sandan (3rd degree black belt), although even within that organization this was not common.

A teacher awarded the title renshi is typically allowed to wear a belt that is half red, half white. The orientation of the belt depends on the organization. The American Budo Society, to which I belong, makes a distinction between renshi-sho (lesser polished teacher) and renshi-dai (greater polished teacher). A renshi-sho wears the belt white side up, while a renshi-dai wears the belt red side up. Most organizations make no such distinction, and typically the belt is worn red side up.

Kyoshi belt

Kyoshi (教士)

Kyoshi means “expert teacher,” although it is sometimes also translated as “professor” or “assistant professor.” Depending upon the organization, this typically requires a minimum rank of at least rokyudan (6th degree black belt) or shichidan (7th degree black belt).

Once awarded the title kyoshi, the teacher is entitled to wear a red and white paneled belt.

Hanshi (範士)

Hanshi translates literally as “exemplary teacher.” Many English speaking martial artists will use the term “professor” interchangeably with hanshi. This almost always requires a minimum rank of at least hachidan (8th degree black belt) and sometimes nanadan (9th degree black belt).

A teacher with the title hanshi is entitled to wear a solid red belt.

Shihan (師範)

Many martial artists speakers mistakenly assume (or are even taught) that shihan is a reversal of the same words that make up hanshi. To a non-Japanese speaker this sounds obvious. However, a quick look at the kanji shows that this is not the case at all. However, the difference in actual meaning is subtle. The shi (士) used in renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi translates more precisely into “gentleman,” “warrior,” or “scholar,” whereas the shi (師) used in shihan translates very directly into “teacher.” So one might say that shihan means “exemplary teacher” and hanshi actually means something closer to “exemplary gentleman.” However, since that’s not really how they’re used in English, both terms are often just used as a variation of “exemplary teacher.”

Some organizations use shihan instead of hanshi. Notably, the organizations that use shihan instead tend to be karate organizations, whereas judo, jujitsu and kendo organizations almost universally use hanshi instead. However, many organizations that use the shogo title of hanshi also use the title of shihan. However, in these cases its use is often far less formal and conferred by general usage rather than direct, proper “promotion.” Also in these cases, there are very few shihan in an organization (often only one).

Why isn’t my instructor wearing his [Renshi/Kyoshi/Hanshi] belt?

The etiquette of wearing the belts varies from organization to organization and sometimes from school to school within the same organization. In some organizations, once awarded, these belts are always worn. In others, they’re considered ceremonial belts and only worn on special occasions – seminars, reunions, and belt promotion ceremonies. In these cases, the practitioner typically wears a regular black belt striped as appropriate during normal classes.

Do these titles confer special privileges?

That depends entirely on the organization, but in many cases, yes, they confer special rights. In some organizations, instructors aren’t allowed to promote students to dan (black belt) ranks until they have specific shogo titles. In the American Budo Society, all black belts can promote up to two levels below themselves. The titles of renshi-sho, kyoshi-sho, and hanshi-sho allow promotion of up to one level below themselves, while renshi-dai, kyoshi-dai, and hanshi-dai allow promotion up to their own belt level. In other organizations, they confer no special rights at all.

A Student In Need


We’ve been through some wonderful times together as a dojo. Unfortunately, sometimes the times aren’t so great. Last weekend, tragedy struck close to home for one of our youngest students. Ethan LaPietra came out on Saturday to perform wonderfully at his belt test and earn a well deserved blue belt. Sadly, the next day he found his world turned upside down when his father passed away from a heart attack.

Beyond the terrible emotional shock, the family now also finds themselves facing a financial shock as well. In addition to the immediate costs associated with the tragedy, they’ve also lost a major pillar of their support. The family has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help ease their burden.

This morning I made a contribution to their campaign. Now I’m asking any of our students and friends who are able to chip in a little of their own to help out. Even a little bit can help in their time of difficulty.

Thank you all, as always, for your generosity.

Sensei Russell Newquist

[Cross posted to my personal blog]

Why We Are Not a “Black Belt School”

Madison Martial Arts Academy is not a “Black Belt School”. Most students who enter our dojo will never wear a black belt. Even fewer will actually make it “on time.” And even that phrase, “on time,” means something different when the minimum time to black belt is three and a half years rather than two.

But not being a “Black Belt School” means more than that. When you sign up for our classes, you will not:

  • Be handed a belt simply for showing up to a sufficient number of classes.
  • Be handed a belt simply for writing us a check.
  • Be awarded a belt when you’re not capable of doing the techniques required for that belt.
  • Be awarded a belt when you’re not capable of performing at the required level of proficiency.
  • Be forced to sign a contract that will keep you paying for our classes long after you’ve lost interest in attending them.
  • Be hounded into endless “membership upgrades” with little or no extra value.
  • Be taught “play karate.”
  • Be awarded a black belt after X years simply for “doing your time.”
  • Be surrounded by 30 other students with only one instructor.
  • Have your individual needs ignored while you’re spoon fed cookie-cutter instruction.
  • Be surrounded by “black belts” who never workout in class anymore.
  • Be confused by hidden or obfuscated prices.

When you join a class in our dojo, be prepared to work hard. Be prepared to sweat. Be prepared to think hard and to study. That doesn’t mean we won’t have fun – we will, both during class and outside of it. But we expect our students to come prepared to learn and to train and to take that learning and training seriously.

We don’t award belts just for showing up. Every belt has a minimum required time at the previous belt level. Most students who come to class and work hard won’t have trouble earning their next belt at these minimum times. But some students will take longer, even if they’re working hard. Some students have physical or mental challenges that will require even more effor than normal for them to learn the material. We work hard with these students to help them – but we won’t water down the requirements for them. Instead, we want them to know that when they finally reach their next belt rank, they’ve earned it.

We don’t hide our prices. They’re right up on our web site. When you walk in the door, you know what you’ll be paying – and as long as you stay current, your prices will never go up. Can you spend more money on gear, equipment, and accessories? Sure. Do you need to? Not at all. I trained for four years (until well past my first degree black belt) with one gi and one set of sparring gear, and you can, too, if you’re tight on money.

We don’t have “membership” upgrades because we don’t have memberships. You pay for the classes you take – period. Not taking a class? You don’t pay. Need to take a month off because life got in the way? You don’t pay.

Our class sizes are strictly limited based on the number of instructors available. In our dojo, you won’t walk in to a class with thirty students and one instructor. We maintain a low student/teacher ratio to ensure that you get the individualized attention you need. And we’ll modify the curriculum to suit individual physical needs. That doesn’t mean you’ll work less hard – it means that we’re going to help you figure out what “working hard” means for you.

Our curriculum is a serious martial arts curriculum. Based in karate, it also incorporates elements of kickboxing, jujitsu and many other arts to provide a complete, balanced approach for practical self defense. It’s the real deal – not playground stuff. So we might get a little picky about who we choose to train with. We can choose to say farewell to students who are disrespectful, who won’t work hard, or who will misuse and abuse the knowledge we’re imparting – and we have.

At the same time, we like to have fun – a lot of fun. We like to get to know our students personally, both inside and outside of class. We believe in real communities – something sadly lacking in our modern society. Our students help each other on the dojo floor, but also in real life when the occasion calls for it. Or, when times are better, we like to just have fun together.

Our classes are taught by instructors who are continuing to workout themselves – and continuing to expand their knowledge, each and every day. We do it because we love it, and we hope to share that enthusiasm with our students.

If you’re ready to work hard, to come in prepared to study and think, to learn some serious martial arts, be a part of a community, and have a blast and get in fantastic shape while doing it, then you might be a good fit for one of our programs.