Etiquette and Formalities of Address
In the dojo, there are earned titles, given titles, and forms of address. Americans often blur the lines and confuse them all. This article is meant to clarify what is, and what isn’t acceptable- from an Okinawan Native viewpoint.
Sensei: If you have students, you are a Sensei. At 2-dan or 10-dan. Period. Sensei isn’t a title, it is a descriptor or a designation. That’s it, nothing more.
Senpai/Kohai: Everyone in the dojo has a designation as Senpai (senior) or Kohai (Junior). Again, this is a designation, not a title, and isn’t limited to the dojo (in Japan). From primary school to executives in the boardroom- you will always hear people referring to Junko Senpai, or Higa Senpai. You address your Senpai as such, but you do not address your kohai as ‘kohai’. It is already understood, but if necessary, one may refer to a kohai in conversation for clarification. In some dojo, the highest ranking student under the teacher is often designated Dai-Senpai; again, this is only a designation, not a title. A title will always have paper (menjo/shojo) to authenticate the title.
Renshi/Kyoshi/Hanshi: These are all formal titles that denote different levels of mastery; The lines are blurry on this, especially in the West. It is uncommon and generally unacceptable to address someone by their title in Okinawa/Japan. It is acceptable to include formal title on letterhead, business cards, announcements, etc. It is taboo for anyone to EVER refer to themselves by their given teaching title or designation.
Shidoin, Shidoshi, etc: These are entry level instructor titles, and aren’t used by all dojo organizations. Again, these are titles on paper, nothing more. Not a form of address by students or instructors.
Kancho/Kaicho: These are designations for heads of styles or heads of organizations: These designations are descriptive and do not have any bearing on the rank or teaching title.
Shihan: This is so different from dojo to dojo and within different organizations, that it’s difficult to describe with continuity. Again, it is not a traditional level of teaching title; it’s a descriptor for the teacher: In our organization, Shihan is the designation of a dojo owner in the rank of 5-dan or higher. It is not a form of address, but again, can be used as a descriptive term on some documents.
Master, Grandmaster, Professor: These titles have absolutely nothing to do with Okinawan Karate. End of story.
Proper Etiquette: DO NOT refer to yourself or sign your name, email, etc. as any title or designation. DO refer to any teacher as ‘Sensei’. This is always acceptable. Referring to one’s own teacher as Sensei in and out of the dojo, is always the right way. Referring to any Senpai by first name is frowned upon and usually unacceptable in dojo setting. In personal settings it’s ok, if the Senpai/Senior has insisted on being called by first name only.
SUMMARY: In the Dojo: Parker Sensei is ok. Izumi Sensei is ok. Keith Senpai is ok. Parker Shihan or Parker Renshi is not ok. Takamiyagi Hanshi is not ok (and he will definitely laugh at you before making the correction).
Outside of the Dojo: Hey Garry (if I’m your teacher) is not ok. Yo Keith! may be ok, if Keith has said to call him by first name outside of the dojo.
Introductions: Hi my name is Garry Parker. ok. Hi, I’m Shihan/Sensei/Master Garry Parker.. NOT acceptable.
Hi, this is my teacher, Takamiyagi Hanshi..OK. Hi, This is my friend, Ron Davis Shihan.. OK.
This is just a brief reminder for my students, and again, this is based from the source, not my own opinions.