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)?
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…
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