Many people ask me about these titles and today I want to give you not only the meaning of these Japanese words and the history behind them.
First, I use Shihan in front of my name. It is not because I need or want to tell the world that I am a big sensei or a big shot. I retired from a high-tech company three years ago but I was in the industry for 30 years. During those years I kept my karate background secret or confidential from my bosses and even colleagues. I was not ashamed of my karate background but karate was (and still is) a very personal thing to me and I wanted to separate my business life away from my karate life. I used LinkedIn for my high-tech network and you can check it there but I used only my name. When I joined FaceBook 5 or 6 years ago I was still working for a high-tech company so I decided to use shihan as my first name and posted myself as Shihan Yokota. Now that I do not need to keep my karate background secret anymore I changed the name on FB as Shihan Kousaku Yokota by adding my real first name. I could have dropped shihan but it became almost like my nickname so I kept it. That is all and I will not be offended at all if anyone calls me without this title.
OK that is enough of an introduction. Let me explain about those confusing Japanese titles. In my explanation I will add Soke and Kancho as a bonus.
Let's start with shihan. First of all, shihan is not exactly a title. In other words, this is not something an organization would bestow or permit. Shihan (師範) means literally "to be a model" but it is only a formal word for sensei or instructor or teacher. So if you are teaching karate; for that matter any martial arts and non martial arts field, you can be addressed as shihan. However, it is customarily reserved for the senior instructors or teachers. For instance, if a Nidan or Sandan person at the age of 20's will not normally be addressed as shihan even if he or she may be the chief instructor of a dojo or a club. Since it is not a bestowed title it does not have the age or rank requirement. We would consider Godan and above as the senior ranks those sensei can be addressed as Shihan. On the same token, it will not be considered as impolite or rude if you address a senior instructor as sensei even if he is 8th or 9th dan. In other words, you can address me as sensei instead of shihan.
There is one exception to the above rule. There is a bestowed title of Shuseki Shihan. Shuseki means "Top position" so it means the Chief Instructor of an organization. This is used only in a large organization like JKA, JKS, ISKF, etc as they have multiple number of senior instructors. If you are the only instructor in your dojo or an organization then you should not use Shuseki Shihan even if you are asenior rank instructor.
On the other hand, Kyoshi, Renshi and Hanshi are bestowed titles. However, in general in karate (with JKA, ISKF, JKS, IJKA and WJKA) we do not use those titles. The only exception is Zen Nihon Karatedo Renmei (Japan Karate Federation or JKF). This organization is a non style specific organization and its members are Shotokan, Shito ryu, Goju ryu and Wado ryu. It is a member of WKF and I assume it also grants these titles. I do not know why they grants these titles but I suspect there is an influence from Kendo. The history goes back to 1895 when the martial arts organization called Dai Nihon Butokukai was established. They promoted various martial arts including kendo, judo, jujitsu, kyudo, and a few others. However, this organization was dismantled by the occupation force (GQ) in 1945. Even though the same name organization was established in 1957 it is not related to the original Dai Nihon Butokukai though they probably wish to claim as such as the prewar organization received a lot of respect and honor as it was sponsored by the Japanese government. The current organization is no longer well known or large in membership as it is only a private organization without any sponsorship from the government.
Anyway, I find it interesting to meet so many Kyoshi in the Americas but yet not too many Renshi or Hanshi. According to Dai Nihon Butokukai or JKF, the ranks starts with Renshi and ends with Hanshi being the highest. So, Kyoshi is the middle rank and I do not know why I meet only Kyoshi among the instructors.
For your information, let me list the requirements to qualify those ranks (by JKF):
Hanshi （範士）: 8th dan for more than 2 years, older than 60
Kyoshi (教士）: 6th dan and above for minimum 2 years, older than 50
Renshi （錬士）: 5th dan and above for minimum 1 year, older than 40
What is Kancho (館長）? You are familiar with Shotokan and the part of "kan" is the same here. Kan means building so the connotation is the dojo. Cho means the head or top (i.e. shacho: president). Kanazawa sensei uses Kancho as his title. I wonder if he wants to claim that he is the top of Shotokan which I do not know. This is a little mystery as his organization (Kokusai Shotokan Karatedo Renmei) does not end with "kan".
The last one is Soke（宗家）and I find and hear about so many soke in the US. I laugh about this as I know they cannot be legitimate. Soke means a central family who carries a certain art as their family tradition. Though you can find such a family in some Japanese martial arts such as kenjutsu this tradition is more popularly with the non martial arts such as tea ceremony (sado), flower arrangement (kado), Japanese dancing (kabuki, noh, etc), Japanese music and instruments (shakuhachi, koto, etc). It is customarily carried by the same family of the founder but of course there are some exceptions. This is why I laugh when I see an American guy who claims a "soke" title for his karate. This means he had to create his own style which is possible but I am not sure how legitimate his style can be. Or there is another possibility which is more unlikely that is his Japanese master decided to hand over the title as this American guy was good enough to carry the style. Anyway, if you meet any one in the western world with Soke in front of his name do not trust him too much.
As many of the readers can guess that Funakoshi sensei did not care for the titles. He never accepted any rank for himself even though he granted those ranks to his students. Thus, I am confident to conclude he did not accept any worldly titles such as Soke, Hanshi, Kyoshi, Renshi or even Kancho which he could have and deserved. The only exception is Shuseki Shihan. When Japan Karate Association (JKA) was founded in 1948 he accepted to become the first Chief Instructor. Even with this title he resigned in 1956, a year before his passing. I understand that he wanted to remain neutral as JKA was having some friction with Shotokai in 50s when both groups claimed the ownership of Funakoshi lineage.
Nakayama sensei and Asai sensei both held Shuseki Shihan positions. As far as I know they did not claim any other titles. Personally, I have no desire to claim any titles including Shuseki Shihan or even the dan rank from any organization. Dan ranks are mass produced these days and they no longer prove any real skill level or proficiency but this another subject so I will not go into this now.
I hope my short explanation of various titles was helpful and you have better idea about them. If you should have any questions about this matter feel free to send me any questions. I look forward to hearing from many of you.