This important piece is written by George Ledyard Sensei and expands upon our podcast discussion with him in April 2018. George holds the rank of 7th dan from the Aikikai and is one of the most senior instructors under Mitsugi Saotome Sensei. Topics covered also intersect with those in our editorial “Aikido: Confronting a Crisis”, from December 2017.
Aikido finds itself at a crossroads in its development. My generation of teachers rode the wave as Aikido grew and spread from its modest beginnings in Japan to a world-wide presence. But times have changed, the demographics are different, and we are presented with several serious challenges going forward.
To start with, Aikido, particularly in the United States, has an aging population. While many dojos do manage to have vibrant kid’s programs, the number of young people who continue in to the adult classes is quite small as is the number who in adult life return to training.
Back in the day, the bulk of any dojo’s new students came from young, twenty something males. In the case of Aikido, the boom times coincided with the end of the Vietnam War. Most of my friends had been involved in one way or another with the anti-war movement. I think the idea of a martial art that was thoughtful and had a non-violent philosophy underlying the practice had a huge appeal from that generation.
But now, MMA, or mixed martial arts, dominates the martial arts scene. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is its tamer and healthier cousin. Young men these days do not seem interested in the more traditional martial arts. They want to fight. And, of course, it is impossible for any of us to compete with the fact that MMA is shown on prime-time cable seven days a week.
So now we have a higher proportion of women (too sensible to want to do MMA) and older students. But they don’t come in with the same numbers that the young men used to. They have largely gone elsewhere.
Consequently, Aikido (especially in the US) finds itself in a state of what I call “Aikido colony collapse”. Declining numbers are making it increasingly hard for teachers to keep the doors open. I have any number of friends who have lost their spaces and had to return to community centers to keep a group going.
Couple the decline in numbers with the economic boom occurring in many of the major urban areas and you have a double whammy of declining membership fees and rapidly rising rents for dojo space. In my own case, just a few days ago my landlord, from whom I have rented space for 29 years, just raised my rent by 75%, told me I need to come up with $5000 additional security deposit, and gave me until May 22 (basically two weeks’ notice) to sign the papers.
I weathered any number of economic downturns since we opened in 1989. We survived the 2008 crash, although we never fully recovered. And now, my dojo is on the edge of viability because the economy here is doing so well. Totally ironic, I would say.
The aging population has an impact on training. When I started Aikido, everyone in the dojo was in peak physical condition, their bodies were young enough to absorb the impact and injuries and recover quickly, and the training was very intense and demanding, often a bit frightening, making you feel like you were right on the edge of injury. In fact minor injuries were commonplace as you’d expect when physical training is that intense.
But when you have a dojo where 75% or 80% of the students are over 40. Where the vast majority of new students coming in the door are already past their physical prime… It changes the nature of the practice. The priority ends up being ensuring a safe practice which means the intensity is toned down. Even if there are young people in the dojo, when the age imbalance is so great, the training has to be geared to the majority. This means that the young practitioners are seldom, if ever, pushed to their limits the way we were.
This has implications for the future of the art. Where are the senior teachers going to come from going forward? At this point, people come in to the art and can spend 30 years training but because they skipped some important experiences that should have been a part of their young training, they simply miss out on what should have been some important foundational work.
When most of the students involved in an art are older, the expectations for performance in grading get adjusted, consciously or not. A 45-year-old testing for San Dan is going to have a very different set of physical capabilities then a 30-year-old. When the pool of ukes is all past their prime, the energy of the performance in testing is necessarily toned down.
All of this has a direct impact on the ability of Aikido practitioners to do Aikido as a martial art and not just a moving meditation or healthful exercise. It also means that the students coming along in the pipeline, who will someday be the teachers of the future, are not getting the kind of training that past teachers did. This changes the art itself on a fundamental level.
I think we can no longer depend on the individual dojo to produce the next generation of teachers. In Japan the Aikikai Hombu Dojo has always had an uchi-deshi program designed to produce professional teachers capable of teaching a certain curriculum. Aside from what many of us may think about that curriculum, they are successful in doing this. There is no such program in the US.
What our organizations, and even individual senior teachers, need to do is to create a real instructor training program. They need to look around and identify committed and talented younger practitioners and create events at which they can get together and get intensive training experiences of the sort that most simply cannot get at their home dojos. I’d like to see these events run by multiple senior teachers who can provide different viewpoints on what these young trainees are working on (as opposed to the Hombu approach of a very homogenized approach where everyone ends the process looking just the same).
In the so-called “Golden Age” of Hombu Dojo, instruction was provided by a host of top level teachers, none of whom looked like each other, each having a different “stylistic” approach, a different spiritual take on the art. It was an environment in which one could find one’s own Aikido, which I believe, was O-Sensei’s intention.
I would like to see us design training experiences to mirror that kind of experience for our younger practitioners. We need to focus on them because they are the future of the art. For most older practitioners it is too late to turn back time and do the kind of training that they might have had when young. We need to do something about a creating a system that can turn out a real top level teacher twenty years from now.
I have talked to Josh Gold at Aikido Journal about this. I think that an institution like Aikido Journal is the prefect host for creating some events of this type. But for it to have real impact, our organizations need to do so as well. An intensive experience once in a while is better than none, but it isn’t enough to accomplish the deep reprogramming that training is meant to do.
Most of our organizations run one or more camps where everyone can get together with their senior teachers to train. Unfortunately, these events are often more social than intensive. What I envision is Shodan, Nidan, San Dan training on an invitation only basis for those students identified by the senior teachers as having the potential to go the distance.
As far how to offer more intensive training for the rest of our aging Aikido population, I find that weapons work can offer much of the same set of insights if done properly. While a student might get too old for break-falls and impactive training to be sensible, work with the sword or jo can allow a very intensive practice that can take the student right to the edge. But, once again, people can’t keep sucking the life out of the training in order to ensure that it is “safe.” It should be incumbent on our teachers to offer the kind of training that will allow the students to understand how to control their weapons properly to work at an intensity level that will produce higher skills. This is not what one generally sees with most weapons work.
To sum up… we mostly have shrinking dojo membership, an aging population of practitioners, not enough young folks coming in, and not enough chances for those we have to train out at their limits. We have an aging group of senior teachers who trained differently than is done now and they are starting to pass away. Are we doing what needs to be done to have a generation of future teachers ready to step into the shoes of the top seniors we have had? I do not believe that we have been doing so. But I also believe that there is still time to do so. I think we have a fifteen-year window while the uchi deshi still have a few folks left teaching, and the people who trained directly under these teachers are still available as well.
After that, there will be no one left who worked under O-Sensei or a teacher trained directly by who had. If Aikido is to survive as a respected martial art, this must be addressed. I think it should be the number one focus of our Aikido community. I am also not terribly optimistic that it will be.