Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Teacher Titles

My first post in a couple of months – apologies all, following a recent bereavement in the family my time has been extremely limited.

I recently came across a Linkedin profile that got me thinking.  The individual had called himself “Shihan Renshi” XXX.  I found myself looking at this profile and wondering; why would you do that?  So I thought, why not write about it and see what the rest of you make of it.  Before I begin I’d like to make it clear that my comments relate to Japanese Martial Arts and not Korean or Chinese etc.  Those martial arts have their own designations, which I do not feel I am qualified to comment on given that I am a student of Japanese Budo.

We’re all familiar with the concept that in Japan teachers are called “Sensei”.  In Western Culture we typically think of these people as being “teachers”, like Mr Smith, our fifth grade teacher.  In Western Schools it’s not deemed the done thing if we consider our teachers anything other than the subject matter experts there to educate us; usually on the black board, verbally or through reading.  This interpretation, whilst correct some of the time, is not an all encompassing definition of the word "Sensei".

Another definition of “Sensei” is: “person before another” – or he who came before me.  In this manner a Lawyer, Clergyman or accomplished Sports Professional could all legitimately be called “Sensei” if they began before you and are more accomplished.  Some argue that this concept of “Sensei” owes its origin in Zen Buddhism, specifically in the idea of Dharma Transmission.  Dharma Transmission is the idea that a successor is appointed to a lineage, which traces itself back to the Buddha directly.  In Buddhism, as everyone has an inherent Buddha Nature, with all being capable of reaching enlightenment, the salient point is time spent and therefore anyone with more time than you, and who came before you, is naturally your senior, is more advanced and is therefore your “Sensei”.  Whether or not you buy this explanation is debatable but the logic has merit.

Another title that we’re familiar with in Shinkendo is the honorific “Kaiso”.  This title is reserved for the founder or created of something new.  For example, Morihei Ueshiba was often called a “Kaiso” – or founder, though he was also called “Osensei”, meaning “Great Teacher”.  This is because Ueshiba is often considered the creator of Modern Aikido.  In a similar guise Toshishiro Obata is deemed the founder, or Kaiso, of Shinkendo – given that he created or systematised the martial art as it is now known.  It is however debateable whether Ueshiba Sensei actually created Aikido given that it owes its foundations to Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu as taught by Sokaku Takeda; and likewise it is arguable whether Obata Sensei actually created Shinkendo given that it owes its foundations to Toyama-Ryu as taught by Taizaburo Nakamura.  Nevertheless, this is the logic that applies to this title.

Less common are the following titles (in ascending order):

1.       Kenshuin:  Trainee Instructor
2.       Fuku-Shidoin:  Qualified Assistant Instructor
3.       Shidoin:  Qualified Instructor
4.       Renshi:  Senior Instructor
5.       Kyoshi:  Instructor of Instructors – or “Polished” Instructor
6.       Shihan:  Master Instructor
7.       Hanshi:  Model or Exemplary Instructor – he’s the guy you want to be
8.       Soke:  Blood line successor – or legal rights successor

Apart from the title Soke all these have one key characteristic – they are based on teaching experience, and contribution to what you do, and to your organisation.  They are not like the equivalent Western titles, such as Professor, Assistant Professor, Doctor etc. which are all based on recognition of one’s learning achievements.  

The title of Soke deserves singular consideration.  This title owes its origins to feudalism and is in Western culture the simple idea that your blood line inherits your property.  In the martial arts community, this title represents the idea that the organisation is inherited by a family member for them to own, maintain and hopefully grow.  In this manner it is pointless being a Soke, or inheritor, of a McDojo – what is it exactly that I am inheriting?  Is it famous or publically acclaimed?  If not, who cares!  What this title is not is a recognition that I am the top and best practitioner in that system – though because of family ties and time training this does sometimes occur, but it is not a product or criteria of the title.

All of the above becomes very technical and complicated, all being linked to historical roots.  These ideas are singular to Japanese Culture and as described above are not directly transferrable to Western Culture.  In reality few understand what they actually mean, nor in the initial stages of their martial arts journey do they care.  So I ask you, going back to the point in question, why do people call themselves Shihan Renshi – which in itself just makes no sense.

A few years ago I knew of a Westerner who called himself a Kaiso.  He learnt some sword, created his own Sword School and called himself the “Kaiso”.  In one respect he was entitled to do so, though it was debatable whether what he was doing was actually new in any true sense (he did the same for his Karate School – which he clearly wasn’t the founder of).  His Westerner next called his school an authentic Traditional Japanese Sword School.  So let’s follow this logic; you’re a Westerner who created your own school (given that you’re a Kaiso) and yet its still Traditionally Japanese?  The logic boggles!  And yet, I wonder why bother trying to use the title in the first place.  Who were you trying to impress given that no one actually knows what it means, and nor do they actually care.

A second story of a student of a McDojo known to me who called himself “Fuku-Soke”.  I can only assume he knew this meant something like, Assistant-Inheritor.  Again the logic boggles and again I am left asking; why do people bother even using these titles?  Who are they trying to impress?


And it is hear that I’ll leave you – puzzled – as I often am, thinking, the term Sensei is well established, even if its misunderstood.  To those heavily involved in the martial arts arena the titles Shihan, Hanshi etc. begin to have meaning through in truth their meaning is limited to only those who actually acknowledge the superior experience of others.  To some they may simply do not care as I occasionally find myself guilty thereof.  Just because you're a "Shihan" doesn't actually mean that you're any good (remember it's teaching experience and contribution not learning achievements). 

So in truth, if you’re going to make yourself look like a tool to those who understand what these titles mean, why bother using the titles in the first place, especially if you're going to them wrongly.  The public don’t understand them, they don’t mean you get a pay-rise or get to charge more – so why use them.  I sincerely don’t get it.     

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