Category Archives for "History"

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.

1 The ACTUAL Origin of Karate Belts

We’ve now hit on two very different myths about where karate belts came from. They didn’t come from not washing belts, and they weren’t invented for lazy Americans. So where did they come from?

We must recognize that what came first wasn’t the belts, it was the kyu/dan ranking system that the belts represent. This ranking system isn’t unique to the martial arts. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, brought it to Judo in 1883. From there, it spread throughout the rest of the Asian martial arts.

But Kano didn’t invent the system. He borrowed it. The system is used in several competitive sports in Japan, but the most famous is the game of Go. The purpose of the ranking system is to match competitors against opponents of comparable skill. That’s exactly why Kano borrowed it. When he transformed the ancient martial art of jujitsu into the competitive sport we know today as Judo, he needed match judoka into reasonably fair groups. The kyu/dan ranking system provided it.

Kyu ranks begin with a higher number – usually in the five to ten range – and count down toward one as the competitors become more advanced. After the first kyu rank, practitioners then advance to the first dan rank. The dan ranks count up from first dan, usually maxing out somewhere between sixth dan and tenth dan. To us westerners, a good way to think of it is that first kyu would represent a very skilled amateur, while first dan would represent a very beginning professional. That’s far from an entirely accurate picture. The idea of changing money, which westerners associate with the term “professional,” has nothing to do with it. But it kind of gets across the general idea.

This system is used fairly commonly in Japanese competitive events. There’s even a particular brand of Japanese flower arrangement that uses the kyu/dan system. We have similar systems in the west, including several different chess rating systems.

Kano introduced colored belts into the system when he brought it to Judo. The original Judo belt color scheme consisted of light blue for brand new students at sixth kyu, white for the remaining five kyu ranks, and black for dan ranks. At sixth through eighth dan, practitioners could choose to wear either black or red and white paneled belts. At ninth and tenth dan, practitioners could wear either black or solid red.

Gichin Funakoshi again borrowed the kyu/dan ranking system for Shotokan in 1924 when he brought it into the Japanese school systems. From there, the system spread first into other styles of karate and back into Jujitsu, and then outward into many other martial arts. By the late twentieth century it would even spread into Korean and Chinese styles.

Many styles – and even many dojos within the same style – adopt their own belt color system, making it nearly impossible to compare belts from different dojos. There are a handful of fairly common color schemes. For instance, very few Japanese schools will use a red belt for a kyu grade. Those usually represent the highest of the dan grades. And schools that do use red for kyu ranks usually use it for first kyu. Even so, there are glaring exceptions from time to time. I’ve made it a habit to ask students transferring from other dojos how long they’ve been training, rather than what color their belt is. It gives a far better picture of the student’s actual skill level.

2

How Your Karate Belt Colors DIDN’T Come To Be

There’s a legend surrounding karate belt colors. I’ve heard variants of it in many dojos, but the core of the legend goes something like this:

In the beginning, the only two belt colors were white and black. Since ancient tradition dictates that washing your belt washes all your knowledge away, over time, a student’s belt would begin to fray and yellow. After a bit more time, the belt would start to get moldy and turn green. Eventually, years of training would leave it dirty and brown. When it reached that point, the ancient instructors knew the student was nearing time for a black belt. Thus, eventually, we got the first belt colors of white, yellow, green, brown and then black. Later, this system evolved into the broader spectrum of colors we see today.

It’s a fun story. Kids, especially, love it. Why wouldn’t they? It’s all about how something awesome happened from not washing, right? And it puts a rhyme and reason behind your belt colors. And it makes sense, at least internally.

It’s also complete bunk. There are at least four completely fabricated falsehoods in this story.

First, the tradition of not washing your belt is not ancient. As near as I can tell, it’s not even a Japanese tradition – it’s American in origin. The Japanese have a cultural obsession with cleanliness, and this tradition makes no sense within that culture.

Second, this isn’t actually the way white actually changes colors over time – unless you wash it. If you don’t wash it, it’s going to become brown from dirt first. White fading to yellow is something that only happens if you do wash the dirt off.

Third, even within the discipline of karate, belt colors are highly non-standard between schools. In many dojos, these colors won’t even relate to the colors they actually use on their belts. I’m continually caught off guard by students coming in from other dojos with various belt colors – which is why I’ve stopped even asking. I just ask how long they’ve been training. That gives me a much better idea of their status than any color does.

Fourth, these aren’t even the original belt colors. Gichin Funakoshi’s original belt color system for Shotokan (as near as I can tell, the earliest karate belt coloring system), was white-brown-black. That kind of fits the legend. But these are predated by Jigoro Kano’s Judo belt color system, which used the colors light blue – white – brown – black. That’s right – the original belt system didn’t even start with white!

It’s a fun story. Enjoy it when you hear it. Heck, even tell it a few times if you must. But recognize it for what it is: a story, not the history of the martial arts.

Next week: Karate Belt Colors Weren’t Invented For Lazy Americans