Name Changes: A Japanese Tradition

Over the years, I have noticed that Okinawan and Japanese people historically change their names – a lot. Usually their last name or surname evolves. But there are also nicknames bestowed that seem to take the place of given names. About 60 percent down on this Wikipedia listing, under “Historical Names” and “Professional Names” you will see this observation confirmed. In Japan, people often make a name change to mark a transformation in their life or status.


Different designations for people can cause difficulty when you are trying to learn about historical figures. But I like the symbolism in name changes: we are ever evolving, always learning, living human beings. That is, until we die. (And when that happens, in Japan, you get a different name!) You are not the tag you were given and born into. You are a product of the things you do, the places you frequent and the people and ideas you represent with your actions. We are all on a path of learning, growing and changing. Why not let your title reflect that?


The traditions we follow at our dojo with the titles we call each other, show the changes along the karate journey, for both child and adult students. Children are a big part of our programs, and we recognize their efforts while also acknowledging that they still have less life experience and responsibility than adult students. We typically call minor students by their first name. If a young student takes on a regular teaching role, especially with students younger than themselves, we will often bestow them with the title Mr. or Miss. (enter first name here). We’ll use the theoretical Jane Doe here. If she’s, say 12, and helping with Little Dragons regularly, we might by instinct and example start calling her Miss Jane. We would recognize her leadership role.


Once Miss Jane becomes a junior black belt (still under the age of 16), she receives the title of budoka. Allan Amor Kaicho gave that special title to students at all five levels of junior black belt. It means warrior person, or more literally a practitioner of the path of the warrior. We would usually call her Jane or Miss Jane while she’s a child under 16 or for however long she’s still a junior black belt. Kaicho said we could call a junior black belt shidosha when we specifically want to talk to or about that individual. Use here would be similar to coach as in, “Hey, coach, please help.” Or if you want to be really formal, you might address Jane the junior black belt as Doe Shidosha. We rarely if ever use that at our dojo.


You may notice that we practice the traditional use of last name followed by title. That is to remind us that family comes first. We represent our family, and are responsible to them first. Followed by the dojo. In my case, I prefer to be called Tull-Gauger Renshi. I won’t mind if you use Jenifer Renshi, Renshi Tull-Gauger, Renshi Jenifer, Ms. or Mrs. Tull-Gauger, or Sensei (or substitute Sensei or Shidosha for any of the aforementioned Renshi uses). But unlike some black belts, I will notice if you are my student and you call me Jenifer. And I will not like it. I will call you on it if you are a kid. To be polite, I probably won’t say anything if you are an adult. But I will make a mental note. And remember, every day is your test.


But anyway to recap the few name changes for child students at our dojo. They usually go by their first name. If they are one of the rare few that are able to handle a regular, long-term teaching role, especially of younger students, we may start adding the prefix Mr. or Miss. Junior black belts are budoka – warrior-path practitioners. And the junior black belt’s formal title is Shidosha. After they turn 16, earn their drivers license, and show proficiency in their karate curriculum, a junior black belt is eligible to become an adult first or second level black belt. In my next blog, I will go over the progression of karate title changes for adult practitioners.

Jenifer Tull-Gauger    budoka U.R.K.A. name for junior black belts


  1. Hayes Sensei - HQ dojo on February 22, 2018 at 2:58 am

    Great explanation Renshi! Should be required reading for all our students.

    • Evma on February 28, 2018 at 5:21 pm

      Thank you so much for your input and your ongoing support!

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