One of the most confusing parts about Ninja training, especially for the non-Japanese student, are the terms and names for the skills, techniques, strategies, and other aspects of the art. It can be a daunting task for the Western student to have to learn the many Japanese names that naturally developed as a part of the art over the centuries.
One area of concern, especially for the respectful student, is in making sure that they are using the titles of authority and respect reserved for their teachers and senior students correctly. And, while pronunciation is a major concern for many, it would also be helpful if they knew what word or title was appropriate when referring to, or interacting with any particular person. In that light, this article highlights a few of the titles used to extend proper respect toward your teacher and seniors while involved in training.
Soke – Often mistranslated as “grand master,” this is the title for the “head-of-lineage.” Soke is a position, not a rank. In fact, the soke of any particular school or lineage is “outside” of the concept of rank, and is the person from whom rank is extended or flows. So, there is only 1 Soke within a lineage.
Sensei – This is the term that is generally used, and most readily recognized within the context of Japanese-based martial arts. The term simply means, “teacher,” and can be used to identify anyone who is providing you with a lesson.
Shidoshi – This is a teaching title, used especially with Ninja training. One possible definition is that of “teacher of the warrior ways of enlightenment.” However, if you were to look at the base components of the word – “SHI” & “DOSHI” – you find a meaning of “teacher’s teacher,” or a teacher of teachers, rather than the common idea of a teacher of students – as the word “sensei” implies.
Shihan – This is not an official rank or self-imposed title, as many believe, but rather an honorific used to identify someone who is an excellent “role model” and worthy of following. You would no sooner call yourself a shihan, as I would introduce myself to someone as “Role Model Miller!”
Kansho – While there may be several Shidoshi or sensei within a given school, there is only one at the head of the group. So, just as Soke is the “head-of-lineage,” a Kansho (sometimes written as “kan-SHI”) is the “head-of’-the-‘school” or “head-of-the-dojo”).
Sempai – Contrasted with the word “KO-hai”, which means “junior student,” the sempai refers to any student senior to you in rank. Kohai are the junior, or “newer” students, and sempai are the seniors. But, again, this term is relative to YOUR position relative to the other students within the dojo setting. When you joined, all of the students already members of the dojo were, by default, your seniors – regardless of rank. Just as you will be the sempai, or senior, or anyone who joins after you.