Sensei is a high rank that’s used to describe a teacher or instructor in Japanese martial arts. We often imagine that sensei is the highest rank available, but actually this isn’t completely true.
In this article we’ll be breaking down the rank(s) that are higher than sensei, and what it is that they do. So without further ado let’s get started.
The Role Of Sensei
First off, it’s important to describe what the role of the sensei is in the first place, sensei directly translated means “one who came before” and is usually a teacher with many different students of martial arts.
They will have literally gone along the path that all of their own students are on before, and so there’s a sort of harmony between the sensei and his students, as they one day may also become a sensei and have their own students.
In order to become a sensei you must at least have your first dan black belt.
There’s a lot of honor that goes with the role of a sensei, as they’ve mastered their individual martial arts enough that they’ve passed tests in order to teach their students.
Students should respect their sensei’s as they’ve proven their worth, and literally walked the path that they are on whilst they’re students.
It’s important to note that not all senseis are masters though, so let’s break down what a master is.
The title ‘master’ is reserved for higher levels of black belt in martial arts.
In order to prove that you’ve truly mastered your art, the title of master is only ever given out to those who pass fifth, sixth or seventh degree black belt, which is an enormous amount of effort that training masters will spend years practicing for.
This is why the title of master is one that’s well sought after, and is incredibly well respected.
Fourth degree black belts and below still require an enormous amount of dedication and work, and are never given the title of ‘master’
The number of the dan that you’re on will generally change the title that you receive too, whilst these aren’t necessarily higher than the title of sensei, you must reach the prerequisite dan rank before you can call yourself the title associated with the dan.
Here’s a quick list of the different dan rank titles below:
- Shihan: is a sensei title for a senior instructor (at the very earliest given at 4th dan) and equivalent to a doctorate degree, this title generally holds more honor than a typical sensei.
- Renshi: is a master title meaning “polished expert” (usually given at 6th dan)
- Kyoshi: is a master title meaning “teacher of teachers” (usually given at 7th dan)
- Hanshi: is a master title for the headmaster of a style
- Soke: is the absolute head of a style
- Shodai-Soke: is the founder of a style
As we can see then, there are many titles which outrank sensei. But the title of sensei is one that isn’t thrown away anytime soon.
Being A Sensei
Whilst it is the case that there are ranks which are considered higher than just a sensei, this title isn’t one that’s forgotten quickly.
It wouldn’t be considered impolite to address a 7th or 8th dan master as sensei, as essentially they are a sensei still, whilst being a master.
Most martial artists will consider a sensei to be a life-long guide who provides students with physical, mental and even sometimes spiritual training.
In Japan it is quite appropriate to refer to a church leader or spiritual guide as a sensei.
It is also appropriate to use the term for teachers in educational institutions, classical arts and crafts, temples, clubs and many other student-teacher relationships.
So, it’s not just a title that people are happy to remove once they reach the dan required for a different title to be earned.
The traditional role of sensei is one that masters are happy to hold onto for their whole lives, and certainly wouldn’t take offense from.
After all, many masters have their own students and would address themselves as sensei.
There are some ranks that even masters who are senseis would see themselves as peers too though, let’s take a look at these.
Soke And Shodai-Soke
As we saw in our list further up, there are two roles that are at the very top of each particular style of martial arts. These are Soke, and Shodai-Soke.
There’s an enormous amount of honor that’s bestowed to the individuals that hold these titles, and no matter what other role you may have, if you’re a dedicated student of a martial art, then you’ll hold the utmost amount of respect for any of these titles.
There’s age and time in grade requirements to reach these ranks, and even for the instructors there’s limitations.
One basic requirement is that no instructor may award rank to anyone equal to the instructor rank.
As a matter of fact, the instructor may only award a rank equal to two ranks below his or level. For example, a 5th dan may promote only to a 3rd dan level.
This assures that the student gets an instructor with the adequate experience to promote another student.
This system has issues once at the top of the ranks, as nobody could go past 8th dan as it’s 2 levels lower than 10, the maximum rank.
Instead, a Soke is appointed who holds the honorary rank of 12th dan, so they can be allowed to promote other people all the way up to 10th dan. This is why these roles hold such enormous honor.
So whilst there are roles which exceed the humble role of sensei, it’s by no means a bad thing to be a sensei.
Good sensei’s will take their task extremely seriously, and will hold their title with honor for their entire lives.
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