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Karate Titles -- Enough Already

My friend, David Chambers, publishes Classical Fighting Arts Magazine. In Issue No. 7, he wrote an excellent editorial entitled Titles in the Martial Arts, which is available online.

David describes the development of titles in the martial arts. Of course, today there is a proliferation of high ranks and titles. I am reminded that in Judo and Kendo there are no living 10th dan today and a 9th dan is exceptionally rare. I wonder how many 10th dan there are in Karate and related arts. Reservedness is a fundamental and necessary trait of any martial artist. David very accurately describes how martial artists should "use" titles:

The matter in which the claimant uses these titles also gives an indication of his authenticity. They should only be used in official lists relating to martial arts instructors, published books, or scholarly articles written about the holder—never in publicity material. Outside of this they are rarely used by the recipient as this would be considered immodest in Japanese society, and therefore impolite.

One never uses one’s title when speaking in the first person as it is a breach of etiquette that would serve to demonstrate the ignorance of the speaker. If you have trained for forty years in a legitimate martial art, a basic understanding of Japanese etiquette and customs is expected. In Japanese society, physicians and other doctors, lawyers, and other highly educated individuals are addressed as “Sensei,” but never refer to themselves as such. Regardless of rank therefore, the martial arts instructor is always referred to as Sensei.
I am an attorney, my wife has a travel agency, and her family had a real estate company for many years. There is a saying: "if you can't give an employee a raise, give him a title." In Karate, there is a modern tendency to use Japanese business titles to describe dojo and association positions. It seems odd to me to hear instructors referred to (in Japanese) as chairman, president, boss, etc.

Everything outside of the direct sensei/student relationship is foreign to Karate (in my opinion). Business titles belong in the business world, not in Karate. As David wrote: "...the martial arts instructor is always referred to as Sensei."

Our goal should not be to obtain titles, but to develop a good character and as much skill as possible while we a healthy enough to train vigorously.


Charles C. Goodin