Kyokushin and other titles


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In the Japanese martial arts, there are various titles that are used to address one's seniors, and juniors in some instances. Kyokushin makes use of some, but not all, of these, but there are some differences world wide in the way the various titles are used. This page discusses the titles and their variations. It includes both the mainstream Kyokushin titles and some from Kyokushin derivative styles.

One notable point is that there are absolute titles and there are relative titles. The absolute titles are those that remain the same regardless of your own grade. The relative titles are those that depend on what your own grade is.

Another point for discussion and debate is whether the title should come before or after the name. As I understand it, in Japanese, the proper way is to have the name before the title. Here in Australia, we generally do not do that. We use the titles according to English language conventions where the honorific comes before the name e.g. Dr. Who, Mr. President, Miss (Ms) Muffet, Sir Face, Lord Howe etc... This is the convention I am using on this website. It should also be noted that the plural of all these titles is the same as the title i.e. one shihan, two shihan. The Japanese do not add "s" to make it plural.

Note also that when I say "Here in Australia..." I am specifically referring to Kyokushin in Australia, and not other styles unless specified otherwise, and specifically just my experience of Kyokushin. Since the breakup of Kyokushin, names, practices, and usage of titles may have changed, and I may not have been made aware of the changes.

If anyone knows or does otherwise with the titles listed here, or knows of any other titles used in karate, please let me know by emailing me at

Yudansha and Mudansha
This is made up of three words/characters: yu, dan, and sha. Sha is a suffix that indicates a group of people belonging to a certain group i.e. a collective modifier, sort of like a herd of horses and flock (or gaggle) of geese. Dan, as we all (should) know, means grade or level. Thus Shodan means "beginner's grade" and not "first grade" (ever wondered why it's not called Ichidan?), but from then on, the counting starts and nidan means second grade and so on. Yu effectively means "with" or "having". These may not be the exact meanings, but the sense of it is there.

Thus "yudansha" are "people who have a grade" i.e. black belts. As a counterpoint, "mu" essentially means "without" or "not having". Thus, those who have not yet reached black belt can be called mudansha. Like kohai (see below) this term should not be used patronisingly or loosely, nor should they be referred to as such in public and to their faces. Having worked long and hard to get to where s/he is, this description may be difficult for a 1st kyu to accept i.e. being seen as having no grade, but that's how the lines have been drawn.

This is a relative title. A kohai is a junior student — anyone of a lower grade than you, or someone who started training later than yourself. If you are the same rank, then the younger ones are kohai. It is usually applied to the kyu ranks. It is generally considered rude and patronising to use this term when addressing someone directly. It is only used to refer to them in the third person.


Below are listed the titles commonly used in Kyokushin. This is not to say they are not used in other systems, but the descriptions are based on Kyokushin usage.

Sempai or Senpai
The relative version means Senior Grade and is used to address anyone older or of senior rank. While it can be applied among the yudansha e.g. a sandan might call a yondan by the title of sempai, it is unlikely, since they already have a title which supersedes it. Again, this form of the title is more appropriately used among the kyu grades. The absolute version is used to address people with the grade of shodan or nidan It is however worth bearing in mind that in systems where the titles are conferred rather than automatic, this title can also be applied to the rank of sandan or even yondan until he or she has been conferred the title of Sensei. Everyone from 10th kyu up to 10th dan would call such people (i.e. shodan and nidan holders, and sometimes higher) Senpai.
Literally, this means teacher, and in Australia it is automatically used with 3rd and 4th dan holders. In other countries/organisations, it is sometimes a conferred title, and comes in addition to the belt ranking. In some styles, there is even a further refinement to this title, Sensei-ho which essentially means "Sensei in training" and is often used to signify a probabationary promotion.(A similar terminology and grade can be applied for shodan as well). Sensei is however, also a general term of respect in Japanese for all teachers of skills, and not just in karate. It means something to the effect of "S/he who has gone there before me", and is more along the lines of leading the way rather than instructing. My mother taught porcelain painting to Japanese women in Malaysia, and they all called my mother Sensei too. Consequently, people with shodan and nidan are often also called Sensei if they are the chief or only instructor(s) in a dojo. Interestingly, I have been told by some that in Japan, this title is often not used with people who are actually teachers in schools since they have other words to mean academic teacher. Yet others have told me that in many situations where people are in a position of seniority, they might be called Sensei out of courtesy e.g. teachers, doctors, lawers, judges etc...
According to Cameron Quinn's book, this means expert. I have also been told that it literally means Master Teacher. It is the generic title for all ranks above and including 5th dan in Kyokushin. In some regional IKO organisations, this title is only used by Branch Chiefs, and thus everyone above and including 3rd dan is called Sensei unless he or she is a Branch Chief.
Again, like with Sensei, in some organisations it is also a conferred title that does not come automatically with grade, and in some organisations it may even be conferred on people with only a 4th dan.
I have previously stated here that the -dai suffix indicated the most senior of a particular grade e.g. Shihan-dai or Sensei-dai. I'm truly disappointed that some wiser, fluent Japanese speaking person didn't correct me! It seems that the correct suffix is -cho. This is commonly found in other terms such as Kancho, Honcho, and Kaicho (see below for more detail about Kancho and Kaicho). Thus you would say shihan-cho and sensei-cho, though I have only heard of the former actually being used.
It seems that the -dai suffix means you are "in training", so to speak. So as a 4th dan, for example, you might be Shihan-dai rather than Sensei. In the past, even before Kyokushin, when there might only have been one Shihan in an organisation or dojo, it might also have meant "Acting Shihan". The suffixed titles are not commonly used in Kyokushin.
This generally is applied only to those with a 7th dan and higher in Kyokushin. The syllable reversal with shihan is often interpreted as Teacher of Masters. Even though it may be the case i.e. this person teaches the masters i.e. the Shihan, this translation is not correct. While the han is indeed the same as in shihan, the shi in this case means gentleman, samurai or warrior, or scholar. In Japanese, this is a shogo or teaching qualification, much like a degree, and rather than being an implicit indication of technical ability (which however usually does come with it) it is more a recognition of a person’s time in, and more importantly, contribution to the art. The lesser titles of Renshi and Kyoshi are also of the same genre i.e. based on scholastic and/or contributary merit, rather than straightforward rank. As the ranks of higher grades in Kyokushin swell in this brand new millenium, and magnified by the multitude of Kyokushin groups, the adoption of Hanshi seems to be becoming more popular. More information about the titles can be read in this article by Meik Skoss at
Literally, the word means Head of the Training hall and comes from the two words kan (training hall) and cho (head, leader). Effectively, this means Chairman. Mas Oyama held this title initially, and it is the title now used, among others, by Akiyoshi Matsui, his heir apparent in the IKO(1) and was used by Chiyako Oyama, Mas Oyama's widow, in the IKO(2). In the case of Kyokushin and related styles, the term Kancho can be used to signify the "boss" man of the organisation even though the training hall has many other branches. That is why the style was known as Kyokushinkaikan or Ashiharakaikan or Seidokaikan.
Saiko komon
This, I am told, means highest adviser. It is the title that was used by Hatsuo Royama and Yuzo Goda in their capacity as chief advisers to Kancho Matsui.
I am told that this means President, and was adopted by Mas Oyama in 1985 when he assumed additional administrative positions in the organisation.
 Kyokushin derivative styles
This literally means Founder, and is used by Shigeru Oyama who started the World Oyama Karate group.
Shoseki Shihan
This means Top of the Shihan and is very similar to Saiko Shihan.
Saiko Shihan
This means something like Highest of Shihan and was the title given to Shigeru Oyama while he was still with the IKO.
Kai means association or society and cho means head" or leader, therefore this means head of the association

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