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 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 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 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.
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.