Historical Incarnations of a Title and its Entitlements

Who or what is a soke? If Internet websites can be believed, in the English-speaking world the Japanese word soke has become a title for individuals who claim to be “great grandmasters” or “founders” of martial arts.1 Surprisingly, however, the term is not explained in recent English-language dictionaries of martial arts directed toward general readers, nor in the more authoritative books about Japanese martial culture.2 Apparently this very obscurity provides commercial advantage when it is invoked in a competitive marketplace crowded with instructors who promote themselves not just as high-ranking black belts, but as masters or even grandmasters. This English-language usage stands in stark contrast to the connotations of the word soke in Japan where, if it is used at all, it strongly implies loyalty to existing schools, deference to ancestral authority, and conservative adherence to traditional forms. Despite what many seem to believe in the West, as a Japanese word soke has never meant “founder,” nor does it mean “grandmaster.”

Confusion over the word soke, however, is not confined to people who lack Japanese-language skills; it exists in Japan as well. These misunderstandings arise because in premodern and modern Japan the term represents different (yet related) meanings and connotations depending on the diverse contexts in which it appears. We can distinguish several different patterns of usage associated with the term soke throughout Japanese history.3 For this reason, when describing soke in English (or, rather, when arguing about its meaning) it is useful first to chronicle the many ways that this word has been used in the historical record. Then one can better evaluate the ways that this term has been conceptualized by modern writers and applied (or misapplied) in contemporary situations.

Soke originated as a Chinese word (Mandarin zongjia) with strong familial and religious connotations. Etymologically it is written with glyphs indicating a family that performs ancestor rites. In Chinese texts it designates either the members of a household belonging to the same clan or the main lineage within an extended clan, the head of which was responsible for maintaining the ancestral temple on behalf of the entire clan organization. In Japanese texts as well, soke always implied a familial relationship replete with filial duties. Japanese use of this word was not limited to consanguineous contexts, though, since many kinds of social relationships were organized around pseudo-familial models. Religious societies, commercial enterprises, and teaching organizations all employed familial vocabulary and observed rites of familial etiquette. In these contexts, the term soke often implied exclusivity and commercial privilege, with less emphasis on formal religious duties.

For most of early Japanese history the privileges of power, wealth, and civilization were controlled exclusively by the court, the aristocrats, and the Buddhist clergy, all three of which reinforced one another in mutual dependence. As Buddhist clerics developed their combined exoteric-esoteric (ken-mitsu) form of tantra, they gave rise to a shared “culture of secret transmission” (Stone, 97-152). In other words, Buddhist pedagogical systems in which tantric rituals were taught via oral initiations (kuden) available only to members of exclusive master-disciple lineages became the normative teaching method across elite society (Nishiyama 1982b, 146-147). Within this culture, the arts of civilization prized most by wealthy nobles became the exclusive property of certain families. For example, the Nijo and Reizei branches of the aristocratic Fujiwara family each taught and maintained control over mutually exclusive systems of initiation into the mysteries of Japanese poetics (waka). Lower down on the economic ladder, designated merchant families exercised exclusive commercial control over the production and distribution of certain types of manufactured goods used by aristocrats, such as extravagant ceramics (for example, raku ware; Nishiyama 1982b, 51). Those families maintained their hereditary monopolies through the protection and patronage of local nobles or of the court.

These families operated much like corporate entities in which many affiliated kinship groups functioned in unison. Among the members of the united kinship groups only the individual successor–usually the oldest son–of the current family head received full initiation into the secrets of the family craft. Even if proper male progeny did not exist, economic necessity demanded that the main family line always continue since hereditary authority rested with that family alone. Whenever required, therefore, another male from one of the affiliated groups would be brought in and designated as heir to succeed the head of the family. The heir, whether related by blood or adopted, was responsible for maintaining the unity of the corporate families, maintaining their commercial monopoly, and maintaining their good relations with their patrons. Most of all he was responsible for preserving the secret texts, special tools, and knowledge of the oral initiations that constituted his family’s exclusive lore. The legitimate possessors of that exclusive lore, both the main family itself as a multi-generational entity, and the individual current head of the family were called the soke. Use of this term was extremely limited, however, until after the establishment of the Tokugawa peace in 1603 provided the conditions for the development of new, more elaborate systems of familial privilege throughout the land.

During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) of Japanese history, especially during the eighteenth century, many new types of artistic and cultural activities came under the domination of families that exercised proprietary authority over the performance of those arts and endeavors by others. These new familial lineages, which essentially operated as commercial guilds, referred to themselves as soke. The leading expert on this subject is a Japanese scholar named Nishiyama Matsunosuke. Early in his career, Nishiyama wrote two seminal studies of soke families and the ways they exercised their authority during this period of Japanese history: Iemoto monogatari (Iemoto Stories, 1956; reprinted as Nishiyama 1982a) and Iemoto no kenkyu (Researches in the Iemoto System, 1960; reprinted as Nishiyama 1982b).4 Although Nishiyama settled on the term iemoto, in the Tokugawa-period texts he studied the words iemoto and soke were used interchangeably, without any distinction in meaning (Nishiyama 1982b, 15). Both words were used to refer to the main lineage that asserted proprietary authority over a commercial guild or to refer to the person who had attained full initiation as the current legitimate head of that lineage.

Nishiyama cites several factors that contributed to the development of familial lineages (i.e., soke) as commercial guilds. The Tokugawa regime placed governmental authority in the hands of an upper echelon of warrior families who maintained their positions of power through assertions of hereditary privilege and attempts to enforce rigid codes of social distinctions. These new warrior elites readily accepted similar assertions of familial authority over the codification and teaching of artistic endeavors (Nishiyama 1982b, 91-92). Moreover, the warrior rulers patronized many new performative arts and forms of amusement that had developed independently from and, thus, outside the control of the old aristocratic families. It was the teachers of these new amusements–arts such as tea ceremony (chanoyu), flower arranging (ikebana), chess (shogi), Noh theater, verse (haikai), special forms of music and dance, and so forth–that most quickly asserted familial control over their teaching and over their performance by others (Nishiyama 1982b, 135-140). Finally, the long period of peace produced many unemployed former warriors (ronin) who could seek employment as junior instructors in these guilds; at the same time, the end of incessant warfare promoted the economic prosperity that enabled townsmen and rural landowners to amass surplus wealth that they could spend as pupils of these arts.

The existence of a network of junior instructors (i.e., natori) who taught in the name of the soke is a crucial feature that distinguished Tokugawa-period soke families from their earlier counterparts (Nishiyama 1982b, 106). During the Tokugawa period, instruction in the special skills associated with a particular artistic endeavor was marketed through networks of branch instructors who paid royalties and license fees to the soke and who were organized into a pyramid-like hierarchical structure with the soke on top. The soke asserted absolute authority over the branch instructors and indirect authority over their students by controlling what, how, and when subjects could be taught and by restricting access to the most advanced lore, to which the soke alone was privy. Nishiyama labeled the social structures associated with this type of exclusive familial control and networks of branch instructors the iemoto system (iemoto seido). He saw it as a unique feature of Japanese feudalism that exerted a strong influence over the development of many traditional Japanese arts even until modern times (Nishiyama 1982b, 20-21).

These Tokugawa-period artistic lineages can be likened to commercial guilds because they earned money from every single person who participated in their particular school’s craft or art throughout the entire country. Nishiyama (1982b, 16) neatly summarizes the commercial rights (kenri) of these familial guilds as follows:

1. Rights regarding the techniques (waza) of the art, such as the right to keep it secret, the right to control how and when it is performed, and rights over the repertoire of its curriculum and its choreography (kata).

2. Rights over instructors (kyoju), over initiation rituals and documents (soden), and over the awarding of diplomas and licenses (menkyo).

3. The right to punish (chobatsu) and to expel (hamon) students.

4. The right to control uses of costumes, of stage names or artistic pseudonyms, and so forth.

5. The right to control facilities and special equipment or tools used in the art.

6. Exclusive rights to the monetary income and social status resulting from the preceding five items.

For almost every art or amusement patronized by the ruling elite, there existed only a limited number of these familial guilds, each one of which enforced the above rights over anyone who practiced that art throughout the entire kingdom.5 No one could legally perform a play, a song, a musical piece, or practice any other art in public without either joining the soke’s school or paying fees for temporary permission (ichinichi soden). Enforcement of these exclusive rights enabled soke families to control huge populations of students across all strata of society. Nishiyama argues that from the middle of the eighteenth century these guilds provided a government-regulated medium for the distribution of cultural knowledge within which people assigned to different social classes (samurai of various ranks, townsmen, merchants, priests, wealthy farmers, rural warriors, etc.) could interact with one another on a near-equal footing (Nishiyama 1982b, 531; 1997, 204-208).

Nishiyama’s research demonstrates that the near-monopoly control over the teaching of peaceful arts exercised by Tokugawa-period soke effectively prevented the proliferation of rival schools. In short, where soke existed, there were no new schools. The very creation of new schools repudiated any notion of soke authority (Nishiyama 1982b, 135-137). Seen in this light, it is obvious that the word soke in premodern Japanese documents could never be translated into English as “founder.” The notion of “founder” is even less appropriate in modern Japan.

After 1868, when Japan became organized as a modern state, the government formally recognized the legal rights of soke (a.k.a. iemoto) families to control the copyright of all musical scores, theatrical plays, textbooks, and artistic works produced by members of their guilds (Nishiyama 1982b, 16). In this way, the terms soke and iemoto acquired legal definitions as designations for the modern representatives of the limited number of families who could provide historical documentation that they had controlled these kinds of commercial guilds during the Tokugawa period. To maintain their copyrights, the leaders of these families had to register with the government as legal entities. At the same time that they acquired copyrights, they lost their previous ability to restrict the teaching or performance of their arts by people from outside their guild. They became just one school or performance group among many. While they can restrict unauthorized use of their own name and their own historical resources, they have no legal power to inhibit competition. Today, as long as there is no copyright infringement, anyone can write new instructional guides to tea ceremony or any other traditional art. Anyone is free to devise new methods for practicing them.

Use of the term soke (or iemoto) in martial contexts is even more complex. Before 1868, soke families that were organized into the kinds of commercial guilds described above never controlled instruction in martial arts. This is the reason so many different lineages (ryuha) of martial arts existed in premodern Japan. The contrast between teaching organizations devoted to peaceful arts (such as tea ceremony, flower arranging, and so forth) and those concerned with martial arts could not be more stark. Instruction in any of the peaceful arts was available only from a small number of familial lineages, each one of which organized itself into a commercial guild with a network of affiliated branch instructors available throughout the land. On the other hand, there existed hundreds of different martial art lineages, the vast majority of which were confined to a single location.6 While many martial lineages were consanguineous (i.e., handed down from father to son), many others were not.

Nishiyama (1982b, 273-278) identifies several reasons why martial art lineages never developed into iemoto (a.k.a. soke) systems. Prior to the establishment of the Tokugawa peace, rapid acquisition of military prowess constituted the sine qua non of any system of martial instruction. An instructor who withheld instruction in the most advanced techniques as a family secret, as was the norm among soke who taught peaceful arts, could not have attracted students. For this reason, during the sixteenth century, military students usually attained full initiation rather quickly, after which they were free to teach all that they had learned to their own students. If anyone issued diplomas, they did so on their own authority, without having to pay license fees to any larger organization. After the Tokugawa regime imposed peace on the land, both older and new schools of martial instruction became more structured, more secretive, and developed more complex and time-consuming curriculums. Students who received diplomas no longer necessarily acquired independent rights to issue diplomas themselves.7 The ruling authorities also actively prevented any warrior groups or martial schools from developing organizational bonds across domain boundaries.8 Moreover, the rulers of each individual domain preferred to patronize only their own local martial systems, which could be kept under their own local control. Finally, in an age of peace it became practically impossible for any one martial lineage or group of lineages to demonstrate decisively their superiority over their rivals. Innovative teachers could (and did) devise new methods of martial training and establish new schools without having to risk lives to demonstrate their combat effectiveness.

Osano Jun (187-192) argues that the first martial art in Japan to adopt a true soke system was the Kodokan School of judo. Osano could be right. The Kodokan set the standards not just for members within one training hall in one location, but for all participants in judo throughout the nation. The Kodokan defined the art; it controlled licensing and instruction; and it established branch schools with instructors who maintained permanent affiliation with the headquarters. If the Kodokan does not recognize something as being “judo,” then it is not judo. Therefore, there is no such thing as a new style of judo. All of these elements constitute essential characteristics of traditional soke organizations in Tokugawa-period Japan. In actual practice, however, no one ever refers to the Kodokan, or its current head, as the soke of judo.9 The term seems out of place with judo’s emphasis on modernity. Having analyzed the term soke in this way, Osano also criticizes the present-day use of the soke label by some Japanese teachers who represent traditional martial art lineages (i.e., koryu). Osano asserts that such usage not only is incorrect but also reveals an ignorance of traditional Japanese culture.

Osano’s strict historical understanding is probably too strict. He overlooks the legal and social changes in the status of soke that occurred after 1868. After Japan began to modernize, social critics denounced soke organizations as a disagreeable legacy of a feudal system based on hereditary privilege, which stifled innovation and restricted knowledge for the financial benefit of undeserving family heads who no longer possessed the skills of their ancestors (Nishiyama 1982c, 263-273). Soke organizations saw their networks of branch instructors wither as interest in traditional arts declined and former students broke away to found rival schools.10 Soon many traditional soke disappeared, especially in arts based on direct competition among participants such as Japanese chess (shogi) and in less well-known forms of dance and song. As more and more of these intangible cultural legacies disappeared, modern Japanese gradually developed a new appreciation for the soke families who had managed to preserve their own family traditions and teach them to new generations. Without the determination and persistence of the heirs of these families, direct knowledge of many traditional Japanese arts would have been lost.

Today one could argue that the historical differences between the heirs of Tokugawa-period family lineages which operated as commercial guilds (with the natori system) and the heirs of localized teaching lineages such as those associated with martial traditions are less significant than their modern similarities. In both cases the current successors remain the only legitimate sources for traditional forms of instruction in the arts of that lineage. In both cases the current successors have assumed responsibility for preserving the historical texts, special tools, unique skills, and specific lore that have been handed down within their own particular lineage. In both cases the current successors distinguish their traditional teachings from newly founded rivals by pointing out how their teachings remain faithful to the goals and forms taught by previous generations. Based on these similarities, many modern writers use the terms iemoto or soke as designations for the legitimate heir to any established main lineage. Used in reference to present-day representatives of traditional martial art lineages, therefore, the soke label properly denotes their roles as successors to and preservers of a particular historical and cultural legacy. It should not be interpreted as implying identification with a commercial network (as criticized by Osano) nor as being equivalent to “grandmaster” or “founder” (as mistakenly assumed by casual observers), and might best be translated simply as “head” or “headmaster.”

Consider, for example, the case of Kashima-Shinryu (see Friday, Legacies of the Sword). In his books and articles, Seki Humitake, the current head of and nineteenth-generation successor to the Kashima- Shinryu lineage, uses the label soke as a designation for the Kunii family. He uses this term as a way of honoring the role the Kunii family played in preserving Kashima-Shinryu traditions. Down to the time of Seki’s teacher, Kunii Zen’ya (1894-1966), Kashima-Shinryu forms of martial lore had been passed down consanguineously within the Kunii family from father to son from one generation to the next. Seki’s modern use of the label soke simply acknowledges that legacy.11 In the writings of Kunii Zen’ya and in the traditional scrolls preserved within the Kunii family, however, the word soke cannot be found. Kunii Zen’ya never referred to himself or to his family as the soke of Kashima-Shinryu. He simply signed his name. In writing out copies of his family’s old scrolls (these copies would be handed out as diplomas), though, he usually would add the words “Kunii-ke soden” before the title of each scroll. For example, if he copied an old scroll titled “Kenjutsu mokuroku” he would give it the title “Kunii-ke soden kenjutsu mokuroku.” In this example, the original title simply means “fencing curriculum” while the longer version means “the fencing curriculum transmitted within the Kunii family.” Used to represent this sense of “transmitted within a family,” the term soke seems perfectly reasonable. It merely implies that the lore associated with this curriculum was taught exclusively within the Kunii familial lineage.

In concluding, it is difficult to condone the use of obscure Japanese terminology to describe American social practices for which perfectly acceptable English words already exist. One must struggle to imagine how any non-Japanese could call himself a “soke” in English except as a joke. At the same time it is also difficult to regard this term with any special reverence or to become overly troubled by its misuse among self-proclaimed “grandmasters” and “founders.” During the Tokugawa period the word soke designated a commercial system of hereditary privilege that took advantage of the ignorance of ordinary people for financial gain. Perhaps teachers of commercial martial art schools in America who adopt the title soke for themselves are more historically accurate in their usage than they themselves realize.

This article first appeared in Keiko Shokon, 2002.


  1. Random examples of organizations with websites on the Internet (as of March 2002) that promote use of the word soke as a exalted martial art title include the following: (1) the World Head of Family Sokeship Council (, which boasts “the most elite and prestigious grandmasters council in the world”; (2) the World Sokeship Council (renamed to World Headfounders/Headfamilies Council in 1989;, which states that it “was established to create a trully [sic] ‘elite’ and very prestigious fellowship or peer group for that very small group of martial artists who have achieved the right to be called a ‘grandmaster’ by their peers”; (3) Juko-Kai International (, which under a link titled “Soke’s Corner” describes its own “Zen Kokusai Soke Budo/Bugei Renmei” (a.k.a., Zen Kokusai Soke Remmei [sic]) as the West’s first recognized sokeship commission (founded 1970) and identifies soke as someone who founds his own martial art “ryu.” I thank Jim Kass for informing me of these websites. ↩︎
  2. I could not find the word soke in Kim’s popular dictionary, in Draeger’s pioneering three-volume opus, nor in Hurst’s scholarly history. In Frederic’s dictionary it appears misspelled as sokei and is not defined but is mistakenly cross-referenced with shodai, which in turn is glossed as a title for the founder of a martial art “ryu” (i.e., ryuha or lineage). ↩︎
  3. In addition to its historical meanings, this word acquires additional implications when used by modern writers or cultural critics as an analytical concept to explain certain features of the social and historical contexts in which soke appears. (For an explanation of the difference between terms and concepts, see Hall 1983.) ↩︎
  4. For a brief English-language summary of his research, see the translator’s introduction, pages 4-5, to Nishiyama 1997. ↩︎
  5. Nishiyama (1982b, 14, 19-20) cites Shoryu Iemoto Kagami (Directory of Iemoto Schools), a woodblock text printed sometime in the early nineteenth century, to provide some indication of the number and kinds of artistic schools (ryuha; i.e., commercial guilds) then existing in Japan. According to this text the ratios between arts and number of schools was as follows: abacus = 7 schools; flower arranging = 2 schools; tea ceremony = 1 school (the Senke) with 14 sub-divisions; incense = 2 schools; Noh = 6 schools; poetics (waka) = 2 schools; linked verse (renga) = 3 schools; minimal verse (haikai) = 6 schools; checkers (go) = 4 schools; chess (shogi) = 4 schools; wind pipes (sho) = 4 schools; horizontal flute (fue) = 3 schools; lute (biwa) = 4 schools; zither (koto) = 1 school; and so forth. ↩︎
  6. Nishiyama (1982b, 279) cites the research of Imamura Yoshio (subsequently published in 1967), which shows that during the nineteenth century more than seventy-one percent of the martial art schools listed in domain records were taught only in one location. ↩︎
  7. During the Tokugawa period instructors of all types, whether affiliated with an iemoto system (i.e., commercial guild), a martial lineage, or a religious institution, charged monetary fees for diplomas. To protect their interests, they severely restricted the rights of students to reveal what they had learned to outsiders without proper authorization. In martial lineages, new students customarily signed oaths of secrecy and advanced students pledged that upon their own deaths all scrolls, texts, and diplomas they had received would be returned to their instructor’s household. There is no evidence, though, that these kinds of restrictions were observed by military students prior to the Tokugawa period. ↩︎
  8. Friday (18) and Hurst (178-179) also point out how government policies prevented martial art lineages from developing into iemoto systems. ↩︎
  9. Nishiyama (1982c, 291-292) also discusses the Kodokan as a social institution that rationalized and modernized many features of the premodern iemoto system. ↩︎
  10. The traditional soke schools of tea ceremony and flower arranging constitute the main exceptions to this trend. They have flourished by redefining themselves as institutions for promoting an appreciation for traditional Japanese culture and, especially, for teaching traditional values and etiquette to young women. ↩︎
  11. Friday (32, 49-50) also uses the label soke as a designation for the Kunii family, but based on his analysis of soke as lineages characterized by “proprietorship over a package of teachings vested exclusively in the hands of one individual per generation.” Friday’s usage emphasizes the conceptual similarity among all kinds of instructional lineages before, during, and after the Tokugawa period. In his view, the development of iemoto systems (i.e., networks of branch instructors) by lineages that taught peaceful arts merely constitutes an extreme commercialization across borders of the same rights of proprietorship exercised on a local level by martial lineages. ↩︎


Draeger, D.F. 1973-1974. The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan. 3 volumes. New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill.

Friday, K.F., with H. Seki. 1997. Legacies of the Sword: the Kashima-Shinryu and Samurai Martial Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Hall, J.W. 1983. Terms and Concepts in Japanese History: An Inquiry into the Problems of Translation. Journal of Japanese Studies 9, no. 1: 1-32.

Hurst, G.C. 1998. Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Imamura, Y. 1967. Jukyuseiki ni Okeru Nihon Taiiku no Kenkyu (Studies in Ninteenth-century Japanese Physical Education). Tokyo: Fumaido Shoten.

Kim, S.-J., D. Kogan, N. Kontogiannis, and H. Wong. 1995. Tuttle Dictionary of the Martial Arts of Korea, China & Japan. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle.

Louis, F. 1995. (1988) A Dictionary of the Martial Arts (Dictionnaire des Arts Martiaux). Translated and edited by P.H. Crompton. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co.

Nishiyama, M. 1982a (1956). Iemoto Monogatari (Iemoto Stories). Reprinted in Iemotosei no Tenkai (Development of the Iemoto System), vol. 2 of Nishiyama Matsunosuke Chosakushu (Collected Works). Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan.

——. 1982b (1960). Iemoto no Kenkyu (Researches in the Iemoto System). Reprinted as vol. 1 of Nishiyama Matsunosuke Chosakushu (Collected Works). Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan.

——. 1982c (1962). Gendai no Iemoto (Contemporary Iemoto). Reprinted in Iemotosei No Tenkai (Development of the Iemoto System), vol. 2 of Nishiyama Matsunosuke Chosakushu (Collected Works). Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan.

——. 1997. Edo Culture Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868. Translated and edited by G. Groemer. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.

Osano, J. 1994. Zusetsu Nihon Bugei Bunka Gairon (Illustrated Overview of Japanese Martial Culture). Tokyo: Fuyosha.

Stone, J.I. 1999. Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Copyright ©2002 William M. Bodiford. All rights reserved.