Soke... is the highest title and position in the Martial Arts community, the head of a martial arts style/ryu. As such it is he/she who awards rank, determines technique and concepts to be taught.
While many will take the title upon themselves, in reality, few actually qualify and few will obtain the correct traditional method of recognition and sponsorship.
So many people are confused with this simple term called soke. Ironically, it's mainly foreigners who have a problem with it. The so-called controversy and dilemma with the use of soke in martial arts has only been in a few articles (self-published) Those few individuals seem to rant and rave, spouting mostly their opinion with inaccurate "facts", as well as attacks against styles, martial artists and organization.
Some modern traditionalist's argue that if the art was not founded before 1868 the meiji restoration, the term soke should not be used. They argue that if the martial art is not "koryu" ("Old or Ancient") the term is wrong. Another argument proffered by modern traditionalist's is that even the Japanese don't use the title.
However there are many Japanese martial Artists from Japan, that use the term soke such as Soke Takayuki Kubota, Soke Kiyohisa Hirano, Soke Shogu Kuniba and Soke Hatsumi Masaaki.
Again some modern "traditionalists" argue that the title is only appropriate for martial arts founded in Japan or Okinawa. An example of a modern martial art created by a non- asian from the United States and recognized by both Japan and Okinawa is Dr. Mike Sandler and his Shingo Ryu Bujitsu Kai the now (Shingo-ha Yoshukai) martial art which was formally recognized and registered as a legitimate martial art style by the Dai-Nippon Seibukan of Japan and the Seidokan Motobu Ryu of Okinawa.
Modern "traditionalists" argue that many titles are permissible such as : So Shihan (Head Master); Shuseki Shihan ( Chief Head Master ); Kancho ( Head of House/Ownership); O'Sensei (Senior Elder/Superior Teacher) However, the term/title of soke is apparently for some reason the "forbidden fruit" this is simply ridiculous. If any of this Japanese terms /titles are permissible, then all of them are permissible, including soke.
The Japanese established a new martial art. Most, if not all did so while in their 20's. Some of these included Funakoshi, who had trained in Okinawan Shorin Ryu and Shorei Ryu, before creating Shotokan; Jigoro Kano, who trained in Tenjin Shin'yo Ryu, Kito Ryu made vast innovations in Jujutsu before creating Judo ( Kano Jujutsu Judo). Morihei Ueshiba, who trained in Daito Ryu Aikijutsu and Kenjutsu from which he derived and created Aikido. Masutatsu Oyama, a Korean who formed the new style of Karate, Kyokushin, a combination of Shotokan and Goju Ryu.
There is one important distinguishing fact between soke of old and modern soke, that being, modern soke usually did not create their art until after 30 or more years of training.
It is estimated that over 400 people in North America claim head founder status, they may or not be recognized by anyone but their own organization or membership. Some would argue as to why they need anyone to recognize or sponsor them. After all, can they not set up or establish any thing they want and certainly they can. However, we have set some basic guidelines surrounding the assumption of the shodai soke title, which are;
1. Direction recognition and sponsorship by a legitimate soke is the most proper and correct method.
2. Recognition and sponsorship by a legitimate Shodai who holds head family status.
3. Election or appointment by a board of soke/head families.
To the person who does not care about tradition and doing things properly this method are of no value as they will go ahead and proclaim himself as shodai soke anyway. To those who do care about tradition these are important.
Modern soke, like those of old will be judged just as those that preceded them by: their years of training; their earned ranks; personal skills and abilities; their character; the effectiveness of their arts curriculum, structure, and philosophy; what kind of martial arts instructors they produce; and the legacy they leave behind in the mean time it should just be, the "term/title of soke is alright".