Thursday, August 22, 2013

Titles in the Martial Arts - Good or Bad?

There are a plethora of titles given to various degrees of experience and skills in the martial arts.  There are strict and not so strict rules associated to each title.  Many require a certain age combined with a set number of years at a black belt dan, or rank.  Some refer specifically to a dan ranking, and some are used as an indication of a person’s impact on the martial arts as a whole.

I have nothing against titles.  Using certain titles can be a way to show a deep amount of respect for someone’s skill level, their teaching ability and dedication to their students and their art.

I find it curious then, when certain high ranking black belts insist on being called by certain titles.  They are offended by anything other than being referred to as 'grandmaster' this or 'high commander' that.   It strikes me as an indicator of either arrogance or insecurity.

I believe there should be a degree of proper etiquette in a dojo or training facility.  Titles are part of this, and should be used appropriately, but in my opinion, no one should be offended if they are referred to simply as ‘Sensei’.  

Translated, ‘Sensei’ most closely means ‘one who has come before’, and usually refers to the status of teacher.  In my mind, this is a both a compliment and an indicator of respect.  You have, in many ways, given yourself up to them, trusting in them to provide proper instruction and lifesaving knowledge.  

There are times I refer to my Sensei by another title, but this is most often done in times of introduction or ceremony.  And typically, use of these titles is initiated by the students, or by other instructors, not at the insistence of the 'title-holder'.

Again, there are times when certain titles should be used, but I would have to question anyone who was offended if I referred to them as ‘Sensei’ during training.  

Sadly, I have seen one such “grandmaster” refuse to acknowledge a very new student during his visit to another dojo because the young lad didn’t know his 'exalted' status and referred to him as Sensei on the mats.  What was sad is that he completely ignored the young man who was (innocently) asking a question.  

Looking back, it is more comical really, conjuring up an image of a “master” covering their ears and saying “I can’t hear you, na na na na na” with a bewildered young many having no idea what was going on.  That would make a cute cartoon…

There are ways to correct a misstep of protocol or etiquette, but you can’t force respect on someone.  If you need to be called a certain title in order to feel validation, perhaps you need more work in the area of ego.  

For me, calling someone Sensei will always be a sign of true respect.


  1. I concur! No need for any other title other than sensei to show respect, who do these people think they are for god's sake?

  2. Sue,

    I think a few have lost their way and have forgotten the whole point of this path to budo thing...

  3. Yoda was wrong: it is Ego that leads to the dark side.

    I had an instructor who, for all his occasional bluster, did not mind his students calling him "Dick" instead of by his rank, "master". Ironically, this same man chided me for misspeaking and referring to our grandmaster as simply "master" (the GM was not present at the time).

    I guess that was just his way of showing his master respect, though.