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Dan ranks and Shogo titles

Life is a circle.

No successful karate students I know of would ever say that getting a black belt was the primary reason they joined a dojo. Yet for many student earning a black belt will indeed be the by-product of their years of effort. All they have to do is train long enough, and hard enough. In Shotokan karate a black belt or Dan rank is the first truly significant plateau obtained by a student. It is a individual achievement that they will remember for the rest of their life. Even though karate is not a team sport it is virtually impossible for any student to reach the black belt level without constantly training in the company of others.

Unfortunately far to many students once having reached the rank of Sho Dan (1st level) consider this to be the end of their journey, and so they cease training. In fact quite the opposite is true. A black belt is only the beginning, a very large first step down a truly long, and wonderous path for those who have courage, and the discipline to walk it.

Upon receiving their black belt a karate student will be known as a sempai (teachers assistant). At this point in their training the new sempai will find that they will be expected to take on a more formal leadership role within the dojo. Leading by example from the front row, constantly encouraging the junior students. While at the same time re-affirming their own commitment, and seeking to expand the limits of their own horizon. Getting a black belt is definitely not a time for quitting, or winding down.

It has been said that life is a circle. The same can be said for a student's journey down the Shotokan road. Starting out wearing a white belt made of cotton, the student rises up through the ten kyu levels (colour belts) until they find themselves ready to take their Sho Dan exam. Once they pass the test they will now wear this colour of belt for the remainder of their martial arts career. 

Yet as the years pass, and after their belt has been tied, and untied a countless number of times, the student will look down one day to notice that a great dealt of the black colouring has worn away. Their belt is now almost white again. And so after a lifetime of training in the end they see truth. They have always been a white belt. The colour of their belt was always just an illusion. 

Today in karate there are ten Dan levels that can be awarded. The ten Dan levels are awarded in order starting from the lowest rank, Sho Dan (1st Dan) to the highest rank Ju Dan (10th Dan).

There are also three honorific titles, Renshi, Kyoshi, and Hanshi, that are awarded only to high level black belts. The earliest rank at which a title is awarded is Yon Dan (4th Dan). These titles are separate from, and unrelated, to any Dan rank that a person may hold. These titles are not automatically given. Each individual must first be nominated, and sponsored by a higher rank. After which the organization that will be awarding a title will do so, only after the nominee has been carefully vetted ,based not only on the recommendation, but also on the individuals personal karate resume, and their long dedication and study of their specific martial art.

The three titles hold the following meanings:

RENSHI: "A person who has mastered oneself".

This person is considered an expert instructor. Renshi are no longer one of the many and is usually given at Yo Dan (4th Dan) or Go Dan (5th Dan). It is not unusual for a Renshi to be over 50 years old before this title is ever conferred upon them.

KYOSHI: "Knowledgeable person".

Usually this title is conferred at Roku Dan (6th Dan) or Shichi Dan (7th Dan). It is not unusual for a Kyoshi to be over 60 years old before this title is ever conferred upon them.

HANSHI: "Master".

A title given to the oldest and most senior black belt, usually the head of an individual karate organization, someone who has studied the art of karate for most of their lifetime. This rank signifies their true understanding of the art. It is not uncommon for a Hanshi to be well over 70 or 80 years of age before this title is ever conferred upon them.

Remember: "It's not how long you have been training that counts, but how honestly."