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A brief investigation into the SHOGO system

SHOGO (称号) in Japanese translates simply as “title” or “rank,” and the word can be used in many areas, for example formal titles of nobility, military ranks, scholarly ranks, etc, and informally in the sporting world, between friends, etc.

The use of the word that I will look at here is of-course that to do with the budo world, and specifically the usage promoted by the Dai Nippon Butokukai (1895-1946), and that continues today in one of its spiritual heirs, the Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei (All Japan kendo federation). Please note that the Butokukai information presented here relates to Kendo (variously called gekkiken and kenjutsu) but that eventually all arts under the Butokukai ended up using the system (kyudo, jukendo, et al).

Although this article is meant to be focusing on the shogo titles, I could not ignore the DANI (段位) system during my investigation. The dani system used by the Butokukai was obviously heavily influenced by the system used in Judo that was instigated by Kano and used at Kodokan. Amongst other things, Kano was the principal of Tokyo Higher Normal school between 1893 – 1920 and Takano Sasaburo began working there as a kendo teacher in 1908. Of-course Kano was influential in many circles (including governmental ones) but I don’t think its illogical to suppose that he had a large and a direct influence on Takano’s thought in this matter. Takano, of-course, went on to become a kendo leader in Japan, and a senior member of the Butokukai.

Also worthy of mention (and some details are included in the list below) is that Keishicho (the Tokyo Metropolitan police department) established their own dani system which ran separately from the Butokukai one. There was obviously some strong collaboration between Keishicho and the Butokukai (in fact, the government issued a writ expressly forbidding keishicho from meddling too much in Butokukai affairs).

Anyway, here is a breakdown of the most important events that went into the system that we have today. Items of particular interest are highlighted in bold.

At the end of the breakdown I have taken two or three key areas and expanded them a little bit more.

Significant events in the creation/history of the shogo (and dani) system rendered chronologically

  • 1878/79: Establishment of police kenjutsu/gekkiken and the set up of Keishicho
  • 1882 or 83: First DANI (段位) system used by Kano Jigaro’s reworking of koryu jujutsu, Judo. He awards the first shodans to Shiro Saigo and Tsunejiro Tomita.
  • 1886: Keishicho’s kyu system is defined (Its based on a class system (等) or kyu (級) system depending on the source).
  • 1893: Kano becomes priciple of Tokyo Higher Normal school
  • 1895: Butokukai formed (April) and the start to award SEIRENSHO to distinguished budoka (Oct).
  • 1902: The Butokukai designates the titles KYOSHI and HANSHI to come after seirensho (this system continues until 1934, when Seirensho becomes Renshi). Minimum age for hanshi is set at 60.
  • 1903: Eleven kyoshi/hanshi ranks are awarded.
  • 1908: Takano Sasaburo becomes kendo teacher at Tokyo Higher Normal school in February and starts a dani ranking system in June.
  • 1912: When the Butokukai was formulating the Teikoku kendo no kata the chance was taken to discuss uniting the judo/kendo grading systems.
  • 1913: despite being below 60 the following were made hanshi: Naito Takaharu, Takana Sasaburo, Yamashita Yoshitsuga, Isogai Hajime, Nagaoka Hidekazu, and Ichikawa Torashiro.
  • 1914: the rules for awarding seirensho are formalised and regulations for kenjutsu/judo codified (kenjutsu uses ‘kyu’, and judo uses ‘dan’).
  • 1917: Kenjutsu starts using the Dani system similar to judo. At this point the system went only as far as godan, after that the titles of seirensho, kyoshi, and hanshi are awarded.
  • 1919: The Butokukai officially changes the name kenjutsu to kenDO.
  • 1920: Kodokan announces “regulations for judo kyu and dan grades”
  • 1923: Keishicho creates its own internal budo grading system.
  • 1926: Tokyo Higher Normal school changes the name gekken to kenDO. A month later the change is official in schools across the country.
  • 1930: Tokyo Higher Normal school creates its own shogo ranks – Tokushi, Shushi, and Tasshi.
  • 1934: The title of Seirensho is replaced by RENSHI.
  • 1937: The grades rokudan and above began to be used from this year.
  • 1942: The Butokukai comes under control of the military government. The title kyoshi is changed to TASSHI.
  • 1943: The Butokukai establishes new rules for the shogo system (still need to do more research here!)
  • 1946: Under various pressures, the Butokukai dissolves itself.
  • 1953: The Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei (ZNKR) is established on the back of the Zen Nippon Shinai Kyogi Renmei (began 1950, amalgamated into the ZNKR 1954). At this time dani were set to go as far as godan, followed by the shogo titles of renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi.
  • 1957: Due to concerns of unbalance compared to Judo, which still awarded grades as far as judan, and despite the association being different, it was decided to alter the ruling of 4 years earlier and set the upper limit on kendo grades to be judan.
  • 2000: The ZNKR decide that there will be no new judan awarded and set the upper limit for dani to be hachidan. Hanshi is declared to be the highest award you can receive. There are a few kyudans living around Japan.

  • Seirensho (精練証)

    Of particular interest is the SEIRENSHO award. This was awarded for the first time at the 1st Kyoto Taikai in October 1895 to 15 highly experienced kenshi out of the 386 participants (the picture at the top of the article shows 12 of them). This award is the forerunner to the RENSHI title and would be continued to be used until 1934, when the former replaced it.

    Since these were the first ever shogo awarded by the Butokukai (It would be a further 8 years until the titles of kyoshi and hanshi were created), its hard to guess exactly the worth of the title. My personal feeling is that it was an exceptional honour awarded to individuals with great prowess and who commanded respect within the Butokukai community.

    The first people to receive the award were (name, style):

    Ishiyama (Itto-ryu), Hagiwara (Jikishinkage-ryu), Hara (Tenji-ryu), Tokuno Sekishiro (Jikishinkage-ryu), Okamura Sakonta (Jikishinkage-ryu, shin nitto-ryu), Kagawa (Muto-ryu. The tallest guy in the back row in the picture above), Yoshida (Seitoku taishi-ryu), Negishi Shigoro (Shinto mumen-ryu, Nakayama Hakudo’s teacher. hanshi 1906), Umezaki (Shinkage-ryu), Matsuzaki Namishiro (Shinkage-ryu. Long white beard in the picture above), Takayama Minesaburo (Jikishinkage-ryu), Mamiya (Ono-ha itto-ryu. The picture above is his Seirensho), Kominami (Muto-ryu), Abe (Jikishinkage-ryu), Mitsuhashi (Musashi-ryu).

    So you can get an idea about how many were issued in the early years, here is a quick breakdown of the numbers awarded over the first 6 years (still prior to the issuance of kyoshi, hanshi):

    Year (number of Butokusai participants / number of seirensho awarded) :

    1895 (386/15); 1896 (472/15); 1897 (482/6 including Naito Takaharu); 1899 (766/8); 1900 (493/7); 1901 (825/8).

    Kyoshi, hanshi (教士・範士)

    In 1903 four Kyoshi and seven Hanshi titles were awarded for the first time. The first ever hanshi were:

    [name (style, prefecture, age)]

    – Ishikawa (Itto-ryu, Kochi, 74)
    – Takao (Tecchu-ryu, Nagasaki, 73)
    – Shibue (Shinto munen-ryu, Nagasaki, 68)
    – Sakabe (Kyoshin mechi-ryu, Aiichi, 66)
    – Watanabe (Shinto munen-ryu, Tokyo, 66)
    – Mitsuhashi (Musashi-ryu, Tokyo, 62)
    – Tokuno (Jikishinkage-ryu, Tokyo, 61)

    Hanshi became the top title you could get in the Butokukai and an age limit of 60 was set (that rule was broken in 1913 when kenshi including Naito Takaharu and Takano Sasaburo got it at an earlier age). Nowadays hanshi is still the highest title that can be achieved in kendo, with the very earliest you can get it being 54 years old.

    Rokudan and above (六段〜十段)

    Starting from 1937 the grades rokudan and above began to be used. There were 5 kyudans, 5 hachidans, and 20 nanadans appointed at this time. However it was still common to use the shogo-title above godan, and not the dan. The first ever kyudans were:

    Ogawa Kinnosuke
    Naito Takaharu
    Saimura Goro
    – Shimatani Yasuhachi
    – Mochida Moriji

    In 1957 it was decided to award grades as far as judan, and the following people received the honour:

    – Ogawa Kinnosuke
    – Mochida Moriji
    – Saimura Goro
    – Nakano Sosuke

    In 1962 a further – and last – judan was appointed: Oasa Yuji (pictured).

    Although there are a number of kyudan sensei alive and practising in Japan today, the last living judan – Mochida Moriji – passed away in 1974. Nowadays, the highest obtainable level is hanshi hachidan.


    This article started as a brief introduction into the development of the shogo system but kind of expanded into looking at how the dani system in kendo evolved as well. I pondered about talking more about the meaning behind the shogo system as I think its very misunderstood, but I have decided to leave that for another day. What I will say is that I do believe the shogo titles have an important role to play in the culture of kendo.

    Nowadays in Japan you have to sit exams – both physical and on paper – to get renshi and kyoshi. Hanshi, however, is awarded by the ZNKR on recommendation by your local associations president and – I believe – this top award is not given automatically nor lightly. In that way, the difference between a kyoshi hachidan, and a hanshi hachidan is huge.



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