Masters of the Universe, the Aikikai and the Shihan Certification

Masters of the Universe

Masters of the Universe®, Mattel Inc.

Who gets it, who doesn’t and would you want it anyway?

“Shihan” – most often translated as “Master Instructor”. Sound pretty important?

The term wasn’t used much when I first started Aikido, but it seems to be the title to have nowadays.

In Japanese, the Kanji for Shihan (師範) break down to “instruct” and “model” – or “model instructor”. This makes sense, especially considering normal Japanese methods of instruction – this would be the guy that everybody else copies, or hopes to copy.

The usage of the word varies from art to art. Some arts issues Shihan certifications, some don’t. Some arts (like Shodokan “Tomiki” Aikido, which only has two, although it is also used as an organizational title) have a very limited number of Shihan, some have many. In Judo, Jigoro Kano is usually called “Kano Shihan”, as Morihei Ueshiba is often called “O-Sensei” in Aikido.

What does “Shihan” mean in the Aikikai (I’m only going to talk about the Aikikai here)? 

Nothing, really….

According to the International Regulations you don’t need to be a Shihan in order to head an organization – you just have to be a 4th dan or higher.

Similarly, you don’t need to be a Shihan in order to issue promotions – you just have to be a 4th dan or higher.

The title carries no additional privileges, no additional powers or responsibilites, just bragging rights as a “Master Instructor”.

Once upon a time in Aikido, all of the Shihan were Japanese. This makes sense, as Aikido is a relatively young martial art, and the Japanese had a head start on the rest of the world.

After some time had passed, and non-Japanese instructors had begun to reach higher levels, some people began to call those people “Shihan” too – which certain other people questioned, and this statement by Masaki Tani of the Aikikai Hombu International department appeared in an interview with Aikido Journal in 2000:

AJ: The title shihan (lit. “master teacher”) is used to refer to a certain portion of teachers, but how is this title used and applied within the Hombu? Are there any non-Japanese shihan?

Tani: According to the Hombu’s internal rules, the term “shihan” is applied to teachers within the Hombu Instructor Department who have reached sixth dan. Teachers fifth dan and below are referred to with the title shidoin (instructor). Regarding the situation outside the Hombu, shihan is one of the instructor ranks listed in the International Regulations. Officially recognized organizations can create their own teaching sections (shidobu), examination committees, and so on, and the three possible instructor ranks are shihan, shidoin, and fukushidoin (assistant instructor). Officially recognized organizations have the authority to appoint their own shidoin and fukushidoin as they see fit. The shihan rank, on the other hand, is a title that the Hombu authorizes for use by a certain portion of instructors ranked sixth dan or above within those organizations.

In fact, however, there are currently no teachers-Japanese or non-Japanese-authorized under the International Regulations to use the title shihan. Not a single one. There are, however, certain teachers who have gone abroad-at the request of the Founder or former Doshu Kisshomaru-to teach aikido in various places around the world, and the Hombu regards those individuals as “Hombu-dispatched shihan” (Hombu hakken shihan).

I can see why some people find it strange that there are no teachers abroad authorized to use the title shihan. Some even think that a teacher has to be Japanese in order to qualify as a shihan, but that’s not the case at all. We think that eventually we’ll need to start certifying shihan under the International Regulations.

So, at the time of that interview, it appears that there were no Shihan at all outside of Aikikai Hombu and a few officially dispatched instructors teaching abroad.

That was eventually addressed in the International Regulations, which were revised at the end of 2000.

Apparently, there was still some confusion, and this was addressed in a statement which appeared on the Aikido Journal website some years ago, again from Masaki Tani. If you read through the statement you’ll find some interesting omissions (Mitsugi Saotome doesn’t appear on Tani’s list, for example), but I don’t think that it was meant to be an exhaustive, formal statement, just an informal clarification.

The regulations appear to be fairly straightforward, as is Tani’s clarifying statement – until we get to this section:

- Shihan in Japan : In Japan, before the International Regulations were promulgated about 20 years ago, there already existed many Aikido Dojo. I have heard then Hombu placed a verbal explanation that a professional Aikido instructor who was teaching Aikido in his own Dojo or other place could use the title of Shihan when awarded 6th Dan. Thus, in Japan there are many Shihan. Steven Seagal was one of them when he was running his own Dojo in Osaka. But for these Shihan in Japan, no certificate of Shihan is issued by Hombu.

In other words, there are two standards, one for inside Japan (available here in Japanese) and one for the rest of us.

To be clear – if you are outside of Japan then you require special permission in order to be called a Shihan.

If you are inside Japan, on the other hand, then you are automatically a Shihan at 6th dan, and the special certifications don’t even exist.

Now, there is some attempt to soften what is clearly a discriminatory policy by giving the example of Steaven Seagal – which instantly put me in mind of Jim Crow…

Literacy laws and Jim Crow

Harper’s Weekly, v. 23 (1879 Jan. 18), p. 52

“Eddikashun qualifukashun. The Black man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with US Wites, signed Mr. Solid South.”

The fact that a few educated blacks qualified to vote by getting by the literacy tests doesn’t obviate the fact that said literacy requirements were designed to exclude people of color in the southern United States.

Similarly, the fact that some foreign teachers (Seagal no longer lives in Japan, and I can think of only one other example) may slip through doesn’t make the policy any less discriminatory.

Am I saying that the Aikikai deliberately implemented a racially discriminatory policy?

Honestly, I have no idea what their intentions were.

However, whether or not their intentions were pure – the effect was to create a policy that is clearly discriminatory, and that will not change as long as a double standard favoring Japanese over non-Japanese is in existence.

The “Shihan” designated by the International Regulations under this two tiered policy seem not to mind being made to sit in the back of the bus – it is pretty comfortable back there after all…but I often wonder why more protest is not made.

What would you do?

Christopher Li – Honolulu, HI      

4 Responses to “Masters of the Universe, the Aikikai and the Shihan Certification”

  1. Steven Rice

    Thank you for the article. I found it most interesting.

    I am, however, somewhat confused.

    I thought it said earlier on in the article that outside Japan one only needs to be Yondon to be a Shihan.

    I am also confused about there being no Shihan outside of Japan.

    I came up under the A.A.A. headed by Shihan Fumio Toyoda.

    I’ve been training over 21 years and I have never heard his credentials called into question.

    Thank you again for your article.

    Steve Rice

    I liked the Masters Of The Universe picture you selected for the article I came up in that generation and it brought back memories.

    • Hi Steven,

      Under the Aikikai’s International Regulations you don’t have to be a shihan to either promote people or head your own organization, that can be done at fourth dan.

      The statement by Masaki Tani was superseded (as noted in the article) by the revised International Regulations in 2000, and the Aikikai now specifies some non-Japanese as shihan. Of course, the double standard between Japanese and non-Japanese still exists.

      Fumio Toyoda wasn’t with the Aikikai when he came to the United States as part of the Ki Society, although he later re-affiliated, and he was never one of Morihei Ueshiba’s direct students (the uchi-deshi, although he did attend classes with Morihei Ueshiba in Tokyo), so I suppose that one could argue that he was never really a shihan and technically that would probably be correct. OTOH, the Aikikai tends not to confront these things too closely, sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for Aikido. :)



  2. Angelo Schneider

    As far as I know, in Japan you are not automatically Shihan if you have a 6th Dan. If you want to claim that, it is certainly not covert in the parts of the interview you show above. I know enough higher ranked Aikido Masters who are _not_ Shihan. As far as I understand it, if you are a european, you either need your own organization that “gives you the title” or you need the title be given from Aikikai Honbu Dojo. AFAIK In Japan, you only get it if you are regularly giving lessons at the Honbu Dojo. In other words: if you are a 6th DAN living in “the pampa” with now strong connection to the Honbu Dojo, you never will be Shihan.
    In France e.g. surely are nearly 100 6th DAN, and min. five 7th DAN. As far as I know France only has *one* Shihan, which is Christian Tissier, not even Frank Noel or Mariano Aristin, Bernard Palmier or Paul Müller have “received” a Shihan title yet, or proclaim themselves Shihan.
    Nevertheless I’m no expert, however few years ago there was an “official Shihan list” on the Honbu Dojo web site (pretty deep down, with no direct links from the starting pages) The list was pretty short and did definitely not cover “all 6th DAN Aikidoka”.
    Best Regards

    (4th DAN Aikido, Aikikai Honbu Dojo)

    • If you’ll look at Tani’s statement, you’ll see that he says, basically speaking, that anybody teaching in Japan who’s 6th dan and up will be considered a shihan. That continues to be the practice today, just take a look at the Annual All Japan when they announce the “Shihan Embu” – none of the Japanese folks have the special certificates that are required for those outside of Japan to use the title.

      Yoshimitsu Yamada sensei discussed this very issue in this interview from March 2013, which shows that this to is still a current issue (extract below):

      Leo Tamaki: What is the title of shihan?

      Yamada Yoshimitsu: It is a stupid system. In Japan, one calls his teacher shihan, regardless of rank. Shihan is an occupation, a job, it is not a distinction. People misunderstand what it means. It is not a title! It is simply a more formal way to call a sensei. For example, when one is filling an official form, one does not write as a job: “Aikido sensei”, one writes shihan. It is nothing more than that. The Japanese are uncomfortable because of the system they have put in place and they know that they have made a mistake. It causes them a lot of headaches, and to me too! (laughs)

      Today, everyone is seeking that status as if it were a title. But just as for grades, everyone present himself or herself a bit differently to get this recognition because there are no standards. Today we often get to situations where such complaints are made: “Why is this guy a shihan and I am not? I have the same rank and have I practiced for as many years”. These are stupid conflicts that happen because of this system. Why do they need it? If people call me sensei that is just fine, I do not care to be called shihan.

      Leo Tamaki: But the Japanese do get the title of shihan automatically don’t they?

      Yamada Yoshimitsu: This is one thing I do not like. This is actually why I started issuing shihan titles to foreigners, because they wondered why it was reserved for the Japanese. They do a lot of dumb things at the Aikikai, they invent titles regularly. For young people, they made up the title of shidobu shihan. Tamura Sensei and I had a slightly different title I think (laughs). These things are ridiculous.

      Last year a group [from France] gave me a list of about 20 people, but the Aikikai selected only three of them. So I said “I cannot go back and explain that only three of them will receive this title. Forget it and give me back the list”. I went back, explained the situation, and told them to negotiate themselves, that I was out of it. How did the Aikikai chose these three people that they did not know? Based on what criteria? The only one who knew them was their master. Moreover, some of the older practitioners in that group were not included in these twenty names because they had bad relations with their officials. This is not my problem but it was not fair. And when I got the title for one of those elders, the group got angry against me. I said, “But why was his name not on your list? It’s not fair, and as far as I know it is one of the oldest amongst you”. All this is politics, it is terrible.




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