The Meaning of ‘Shihan’
What does the title Shihan mean?
This blog post is in response to a question that I received on Facebook the other day:
I’m surprised every time I see people in the Bujinkan title themselves as Shihan. If I’m not mistaken you never present your self with -san added, this is only used when addressing others. So would not the same thinking apply to Shihan?
I’m not sure when people started doing this, maybe when they got tired of “just” having 15 dan? However, this are just my own thoughts, which very likely can be completely wrong [:)] I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this. Maybe this could lead to yet another great and educational blog post of yours?
In the Bujinkan martial arts, the title “Shihan” has come to be used to refer to anyone ranked Judan (10th degree) and higher. Many people seem to think that it was always used this way, but it actually used to be used differently. So for this blog post I’ll be discussing what the word Shihan means in general, and how it’s come to be used the way it is in the Bujinkan.
The word Shihan is generally defined in regular Japanese as instructor, teacher, or model. In Japan, there are various groups, organizations, or situations where both Sensei (the much more commonly used of the two terms) and Shihan are used, and in such cases Shihan is generally used to mean senior instructor, senior teacher, etc. This is common in the martial arts, but both words are often used in other areas of Japanese life as well.
As far as the use of the word Shihan in the Bujinkan martial arts goes, the term was originally used to refer to the senior Japanese students of Hatsumi Sensei. That much is common knowledge, but many people I’ve spoken with over the years were unaware that Shihan was also used to refer to the senior Japanese students even before they reached the rank of Judan. Even now many people don’t seem to be aware of this – most people seem to think that the title is synonymous with the rank of Judan and up – and indeed, in a large sense, this is the meaning that it has taken on over the years. However, the senior Japanese students of Sensei (and two foreigners that I know of – there very well could be more) were called Shihan (by Hatsumi Sensei himself) before they reached the rank of Judan.
Over time, as the senior Japanese instructors began to reach ranks of Judan and above, they of course continued to be called Shihan. As time passed, foreigners began to associate the title Shihan with the colourful Judan patch. As more time passed and foreign students also began to reach ranks of Judan and above, they started to call themselves Shihan, thinking that it means a rank of Judan or higher, and perhaps desiring a new title after having already “achieved” the title of Shidoshi way back at Godan. Eventually, people began to think that having one of those Judan patches on one’s uniform makes one a Shihan, and this has become the default understanding that we see in the Bujinkan today.
In Japanese culture, just as with a title like –san, a title like Shidoshi, Sensei, or Shihan is not something that one applies to oneself. It is not something one puts on one’s business cards. It is not something that one uses to refer to oneself in class, or on one’s own website, or in email or other correspondence. It is something that others apply to you out of respect. In speaking of respect, it is my opinion (because this is the way that my teachers taught that it should be) that one should not force one’s students to call them by any particular title. This is something that should come naturally from the students’ side. If someone wants to be a Sensei or a Shidoshi or a Shihan, it is more important to act like the type of Sensei or Shidoshi or Shihan who deserves that title. In simple terms, respect is something that should be earned rather than demanded.
It’s important to realize that the word Shihan doesn’t just refer to a number on a rank certificate. This is one possible reason that Hatsumi Sensei refers to good Shihan (meaning that also, by unspoken implication (quite important in Japanese culture), there are not-good Shihan as well). In speaking of good Shihan, Sensei is indicating that it is more than just a numerical value written on a piece of paper. It is something other than simply that. There is a reason why we have both the numerical grade names (Judan, Juichidan, etc.) as well as the title Shihan. Through observing the people and the circumstances in which Hatsumi Sensei refers to people as Shihan, it is my opinion that he is using the title with an expectation that the person indicated is willing and able to take on positions of leadership and responsibility within the Bujinkan organization. More than just a numerical rank grade, it is a title that acknowledges leadership. These two things, rank and leadership, are not at all necessarily the same. Simply because someone is a skilled martial artist doesn’t mean that they are ready, willing, or even able, to take on a role of leadership in the Bujinkan and assume the responsibilities of service (let’s not forget that leadership is service) that are required of a leader. True Bujinkan Shihan are able to act as leaders and role models for others, leading by example and inspiring others to become martial artists of true ability, humility, integrity, and sincerity. These abilities don’t come from a rank number, but from a heart set on the true values (価値観, kachikan) and virtues (武徳, butoku) of the martial arts.
I hope that this article has provided some insight into the meaning of the word Shihan, particularly with regard to the history of the use of the term within the Bujinkan and how it relates to leadership in the organization.