Japanese honorific terms

by Colin Hyakutake, from The Iaido Newsletter Volume 6 number 11, #51 Oct 1994

There seems to be ever increasing misunderstanding, misuse and loose usage of Japanese honorifics and Dan grades in countries outside Japan.

The word "sohke" comes from the meaning "uniting god and home". Soh or sosen means ancestor, founder. Ke or Honke is family. As you can imagine, there are very few people in Japan that have this title.

What is perhaps confusing is, in reading the genealogy charts there are so many different names with no explanation of who is related to who. Adding one's own family name to a ryu means using the term "ha". Broadly speaking this means that they are making an offshoot of the original ryu. Nowadays genealogy charts seem to be including every descendant of a particular style, including the students.

The word "shihan" is of course linked with bugei. This does not mean that everyone who teaches budo is a shihan! It refers to leading sensei in a classical arts dojo. Students or other sensei refer to their own leader as shihan. Others outside the dojo use the term sensei.

The term "dan" is often misused in the respect that it is NOT a title. In Japan it is used in conversation or perhaps in an introductory letter as a means of establishing an interpersonal relationship. It would be impolite to personally write it after one's name in a published article. Writing one's dan on namecards is rather over the top. The name of your dojo, association, and your position if any within that group is more than sufficient. It is interesting to observe that the higher the level one achieves, the simpler one's namecard becomes.

It is essential that we try to keep a low profile in this respect for the benefit of those who are starting out. This race by some organizations to achieve titles and dans has to be slowed down if westerners wish to bridge the now widening double standard. In countries outside Japan it is already possible to achieve a dan grade in "a third" of the time. For example the ZNKR, in an effort to raise it's standard has added one year between each dan grade. Ridiculously the future seems to be that westerners will on paper have higher levels than Japanese kendoka.