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.

Posted on June 23, 2012, in Bujinkan and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Than you. You put it so clearly. Rank & leadership are not the same but rather of the individual effort to take the initiative to help others & be accountable for their own action is as simple as I can put it for t he time being for now. Thank you again.

  2. Well said. Apparently a lot of people believe Shihan simply means master teacher, and has no implications beyond that.

  3. Thanks Shawn this will help others understand. I think the key point is that you don’t call yourself Shihan or Sensei as you don’t call yourself san. It is an honorific term used by others as you clearly state to express respect. We should strive to win the respect to be addressed in this. It has almost become embarrassing from a Japanese culture perspective how these things are used. But then again the Bujinkan has become more than a Japanese art. Either way being a 10th Dan does not automatically make one Shihan.

  4. Mariette van der Vliet

    Thanks for this post Shawn; I love it!

  5. Michael Gascoigne

    I am Shihan Gascoigne and im a 7th degree black belt

  6. Well to me Martial Arts means respect and discipline.
    I have trained in different Martial arts now for much more than 20
    years. I have seen more than a few people appear and disappear but one other thing that I have
    noticed is clearly the respect and discipline which has changed those peoples perception of life.

    Young kids that have started which were on the wrong side of the tracks, always in trouble and no
    idea how to respect other kids. Place them in a controlled environment with discipline and fighting and they soon start to understand.

    Martial arts is a terrific way for teens and
    adults to get rid of their aggression without hurting or bullying anyone.

  7. Excellent: Too many people looking for Titles and a niche market where they can be “Special” and many of them are very “special”.
    Just train,study and enjoy.

  8. Nicely written article. Thank you for your insights.

  9. Reblogged this on Silicon Valley Bujinkan and commented:
    Shawn Grey nails it again…

  10. Kevin Hollands, N.Z.

    Thanks Shawn sensei for this blog. Very nicely described explanation. Interesting how many Westerners missed the original context of Shihan. Especially the Good Shihan reference.

  1. Pingback: Будзинкан Будо Нинпо Тайдзюцу » Перевод статьи «The Meaning of «Shihan»», Shawn Gray

  2. Pingback: El significado de “Shihan” | Blog de Bushi Dojo

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