For the last 26 years, I’ve had a great “micro” view into the aikido world — as a student, teacher, and dojo operator. I’ve experienced periods of hard training, I’ve raised students and developed instructors, I’ve built a sustainable dojo, and I’ve had the honor of cultivating a 26 year long mentor/disciple relationship with my sensei.
In the last year, through my involvement with Aikido Journal, I’ve been able to gain a much better grasp of the “macro” landscape. The journal has a unique position in the world of aikido. Transcending stylistic, organizational, cultural, and geographic boundaries, we are the largest aikido community in the world, reaching over 500,000 people a month. Through Aikido Journal, I’ve had access to, and needed to process, an overwhelming amount of data. I’ve spent many nights and weekends looking at the data, seeking to understand it, and figuring out how best to use the journal to communicate important insights, problems, and success stories in the world of aikido.
As I assembled this briefing for the community, I experienced feelings of sadness, shock, and dismay, but also feelings of curiosity, hope and determination. This article will take approximately 15 minutes to read. If you’re an aikido practitioner, I think it’s important enough for you to sit in a quiet place and take the time to read it with your full attention.
This two part article focuses on these key topics:
- The Decline of Interest in the Art of Aikido: A data driven assessment.
- A New Vision for Aikido Journal: An overview of our vision and what you can expect from us in the future.
Now is a critical time for the art of aikido and our community. We hope you’ll get your bearings with us and that you’ll join us to be part of the turnaround story we must write together.
Fading into Irrelevance
The Decline of Aikido
After assuming responsibility for Aikido Journal in early 2017, I took immediate action to start a dialogue by launching a wide-reaching survey to help me create a snapshot of our community. In addition to the structured survey responses, I read through hundreds of comments and personal stories. I even reached out to some community members to talk, listen, and learn. While everyone’s stories and comments were unique, most of them had a similar theme. Here are some of our discoveries (data compiled from over 1,000 respondents):
- Student: Chief Instructor ratio: 5.4: 1
- Student: Instructor ratio: 1.5: 1
- Biggest Challenge: Finding and retaining new students, especially in the 18-29 demographic
While this data from the Aikido Journal community may not directly correlate to real world aikido practitioners in a given geographic region, our tribe is large and this data certainly reflects a meaningful segment of the global aikido community.
With only 5 students per chief instructor, this data indicates we’re very top heavy and don’t have a sufficiently large group of students to sustain many professional instructors.
Of course a number of dojos are thriving and have far different ratios. However, many more are struggling to maintain dedicated dojos, others are operating out of community centers and shared training venues.
I’ve now had personal communication with at least 100 dojo-chos and a number of senior leaders from some of the world’s largest aikido organizations. While everyone knows there are clear success stories and some thriving examples of aikido, almost all (at least within North America) agree that there is a clear problem.
Great masters and gifted teachers are seeing fewer and fewer beginning and intermediate level practitioners at seminars and many are concerned the generation of instructors that follow them won’t be as well-equipped as they were. Many dojo-chos are teaching slowly dwindling groups of older practitioners with a complete absence of a younger generation of students. An increasing number of aspiring sensei have been discouraged from starting new dojos, because they can’t find a viable way to start one or make a living running one.
Interest in Aikido
I wanted to look beyond our community to see if I could find outside data sources to support or refute what we’ve seen within our own tribe. It’s pretty easy to find growth data and research reports for the media and entertainment or semiconductor industries. However, in the aikido world, we don’t have the infrastructure or resources within our ecosystem to produce those kinds of reports. However, there are other large and accessible data sources we can tap.
Google tracks trend data by keyword. Google is used by everyone — people of all ages, in nearly all locations.
While looking at trends for aikido doesn’t directly map to number of aikido practitioners, it does map directly to interest in aikido.
People who want to learn the art search for local aikido dojos. People practicing aikido search for aikido seminars, organizations, or teachers. People interested in aikido, search for “aikido.”
Interest in aikido has declined an average of -9.3% per year over the last five years. The spike in interest in November 2015 correlates to the release of a Walking Dead episode featuring aikido.
- Google Trends: Last 5 Years
- Growth Rate: -9.3% CAGR
A 9% loss in interest can be difficult to notice on an annual basis, but can be catastrophic if compounded over a longer period of time. Let’s take a look at the interest in aikido over a 13 year period, starting in 2004 — the farthest back we can search Google’s database.
- Google Trends: 2004-2017
- Growth Rate: -86%
These are worldwide numbers. Some will note that aikido is healthy or thriving at certain dojos, or within certain countries/geographic regions. We know this to be true and this gives us both hope and examples of a new path forward. However, for the aggregated worldwide numbers to drop at these levels, there must be many more struggling dojos and regions to bring the averages down this low.
The Martial Landscape
We can see our change in influence as indexed against two other activities for a reference point. In 2004-2005, we were at the height of our popularity. For those of you who have been in the aikido world long enough, this was the time of the last Aiki Expo held in 2005. An incredibly diverse group assembled for this groundbreaking event. Many new friends and connections were made at the Expo and a number of sensei whom I respect had the course of their development as martial artists altered by this event.
Since that time, interest in aikido began a slow and steady decline. MMA, as a televised fighting sport with global distribution, obviously surpassed interest in every traditional martial art. We are not suggesting aikido needs to be compared to, or compete with MMA. This is solely an extra data point to give perspective on the landscape. BJJ has been on a slow but steady growth curve, passing aikido in global interest in 2010. Anyone interested in playing with the numbers and comparisons can go to Google Trends and craft their own reports.
The Younger Generation
After looking at data from both our Aikido Journal community and Google, we sought out other independent data sources that might provide insight. While Google is used by nearly everyone and gives us an index of interest across all demographics, Instagram is a social network predominantly used by those age 18-29. Compiling hashtag data from Instagram gives a general idea of interest in aikido on the Instagram network, used by over 500 million worldwide.
Data as of December 2017
Within the 18-29 demographic, Aikido is nearing total irrelevance.
Other traditional Japanese arts like Judo and Karate have 7-10X the interest, with an art like BJJ surpassing aikido by over 25x. Merely as an interesting data point, yoga, a non-competitive mind/body/spirit art, generates more interest than all the martial arts and fighting sports combined.
I started aikido at age 19 and spent the remainder of my teens and twenties training hard, taking ukemi for my senpai, and using my youthful energy and athleticism to immerse myself in training and personal development through the art of aikido. In my formative years, the young adults at my dojo brought enthusiasm, athleticism, and new ideas and perspectives. They inspired our teachers, pushed them to improve themselves, and gave their efforts focus and purpose. I saw these young adults forge my sensei into a better martial artist, leader, and mentor. I fear something very important will be lost without this generation’s presence in the art of aikido.
Reaching a Crisis Point
While general interest in our art has declined by 86% since 2004, we don’t believe the number of aikido practitioners has declined by an equally catastrophic amount. However, data and stories from our community do reflect symptoms of an unhealthy environment, and the dramatically dropping interest in our art is likely a leading indicator of further decline.
We don’t need aikido to be an all-pervasive mainstream art, but at all costs, we must avoid losing an ecosystem large enough to support a critical mass of professional instructors.
The sensei who spend the majority of their professional time teaching, researching, developing training programs, and mentoring students, are a key asset in the aikido world. If our art can’t sustain enough professional instructors, instructor quality will decline, student quality and interest will decline, and there won’t be a large enough audience to to sustain dedicated dojo spaces or support projects like the writing of new books or the development of professional instructional or documentary videos.
Leaders in the aikido world I’ve spoken with have different perspectives and insights regarding the root causes of our current state. I believe it’s a complicated issue and that there are many factors that contributed to the decline in interest in aikido.
The founder’s first generation of students spread across the globe to build and promote aikido. Over a period of decades, they did a monumental job scaling aikido throughout the world and then stabilizing by building organizations, formalizing technical curriculum, documenting their knowledge, and promoting the philosophy and vision of the art. Their achievements are legendary and have served the art of aikido well. Yet somehow, what we’ve been doing for the last 13-15 years has not produced the kind of growth and vitality the art of aikido experienced in the past. In fact, we’ve seen a sharp decline over this period with no end in sight to our downward trajectory. This is not a new story. Here are other perspectives on the topic:
- Martial arts in a state of decline? (2006)
- Are You an Unwitting Participant in the Demise of Aikido? (2015)
- Aikido Down the Tubes? Here’s How to Reverse the Trend. (2015)
- The Future of Aikido (2017)
- Christian Tissier: On Revitalizing Aikido (2017)
Now, it’s more important than ever that we examine this more closely, have open and constructive discussions about it, research and test theories, find a better way forward, and take action to turn things around.
Aikido Journal: A Vision for the Future
Aikido has transformed my life and many of those around me. Our art is true modern Budo — forged with philosophy of compassion and positive creation. Aikido develops our bodies, sharpens our minds, and teaches us what it means to be a good human being. The world needs aikido more than ever.
Kids need to learn to work together cooperatively to help each other grow. They need to learn to fall safely and to stay comfortable in their bodies as they grow. Young adults, many of whom can’t identify with any organized religion or political party, need supportive communities and an ethical system to connect with. Older adults need a practice that can last a lifetime, providing skill development, personal growth opportunities, physical and mental fitness, and pure joy.
An art like yoga has been around for thousands of years. Aikido is a mere newborn by comparison, but has the potential to serve humankind for generations to come. Imagine what our art could become and the impact it could have if it blossoms in the right way.
The future of our art is now in our hands. We are the living guardians of art of aikido.
This is why it’s important we keep going and make real committed efforts to find better paths forward. Aikido Journal stands ready to collaborate with our community, to lead projects, and to support the projects of others.
Fueling the Tribe
Within the aikido world, the Aikido Journal community is unique. Tied together digitally, we transcend differences in geography, culture, political affiliation, and technical style. We are a self-selecting tribe of individuals united in our love and pursuit of aikido. We aspire to improve ourselves and strengthen the art of aikido. We accept that there are many different visions for what this means and how it should be accomplished, and we respect the path of others.
Aikido Journal intends to empower the great teachers, practitioners, leaders, pioneers, and researchers of aikido to best realize their own visions, efforts, and expressions of aikido, as well as maximize the benefit of their work for others.
To this end, we want Aikido Journal to do three things:
- Be rocket fuel that propels our individual and collective growth, We want to empower individuals, dojos, and organizations to succeed and realize their own best expressions of aikido. We will do this through collaborative projects and the creation of new tools and infrastructure for the aikido world.
- Facilitate the flow of information so we can efficiently learn from each others’ mistakes and contribute our best ideas into others’ unique expressions of aikido. We’ll do this through our media coverage, research reports, case studies, and instructional courses.
- Tell the story of aikido in powerful ways. Aikido is beautiful, inspirational, and transformative. We want to create and share stories that reflect that in an authentic and impactful way. We plan on finding ways to introduce aikido to more people in a positive light and to create media that we can proudly show as representative of our art.
Let’s Get Started
We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Within 30 days after taking formal control of Aikido Journal, we secured and consolidated the entire Aikido Journal archive (which spanned 8 databases and includes many terabytes of data). We redesigned and launched a new website and an on-demand streaming video service. We’ve put workflow systems in place to continue to update and republish the vast contents in our collection. We are well on our way to completing our goal of making the entire Aikido Journal content library and knowledge base available globally (A special thanks to subscribers of AikidoJournal.TV who directly support our projects and efforts).
We think having access to quality aikido news and stories keeps us aware, informed, and provides an opportunity to reflect on new perspectives. Integrating it seamlessly with a comprehensive historical archive keeps us grounded, reminds us of our lineage, and allows us to learn directly from the wisdom and insights of the founder and great masters of our art.
Aikido Journal Academy
With a full 40% of our community as instructors and over 60% with more than 10 years experience, we believe another important area for Aikido Journal to focus on is instructor development. We want to help aikido instructors be the best teachers and leaders in the martial arts world.
As a community, we have everything we need. We have great aikido masters with powerful knowledge and insights, subject matter experts outside the aikido world willing to support us, a powerful new digital communications platform with massive reach, and a legion of instructors who are thoughtful and intelligent with true passion and dedication to the art.
This will be our next area of focus. We’ll be launching Aikido Journal Academy later this month. Initially, it will produce next-generation online instructional courses, as well as live events designed to connect and empower our leaders. Aikido Journal Academy will help us better learn from each other, share best practices, avoid mistakes, and support and accelerate each others’ development as leaders and dojo operators.
These programs are designed to supplement and complement the training our instructors already receive from their mentors. If our instructors keep leveling up, our dojos will be healthier, our practitioners will be better and larger in number, and our communities will be stronger.
We’re in the final stages of competing our first Aikido Journal Academy course and will be ready to launch it later this month. This alone won’t solve all our problems, but we believe it’s the most high-impact next step we can take with our available resources.
Please consider joining us and taking action on these next-steps forward:
- Share, thoughtfully: Leave a comment and tell us your thoughts and experience related to the health of aikido. Contribute with a clear and objective insight, a theory, or a relevant story. If you have a point that can identify problems and obstacles and/or suggest solution sets, we’d love to start a constructive discussion about what got us here, and what are the most high-impact things we can do to make positive change.
- Aikido Journal Academy Feedback: We’ll soon release an article about Aikido Journal Academy and its approach to developing instructor courses that transcend stylistic and organizational boundaries. The article will end with a short poll asking about your interest level in different topics/courses. Please participate, tell us how we can best support you, and help us prioritize.
We’ve had fantastic support from the community and have made many new friends. The leaders in the aikido world I’ve had the opportunity to speak with want to build upon the great achievements of the founder’s direct students and forge a new and stronger future for our art. Our practitioners and the larger aikido and martial arts communities are ready to rally together to support aikido. We hope you’ll join us on this path of challenge and adventure. Together, we can write the next chapter in the history of aikido. We expect it to be a great turnaround story.