“Aikido, Through The Eyes of Google” by Jerry Akel

A few weeks ago our dojo had the good fortune to reconnect with a talented Aikidoka from Australia. He had visited us about four years prior, and was back in the States for, of all things, his honeymoon. Putting aside any other plans for the evening, our friend attended Sensei’s class, and later taught a very interesting class himself.

That evening, as we caught up at the local watering hole, our conversation turned to (of course!) Aikido. I had mentioned that Google had some interesting statistics regarding Aikido as a search query. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this topic deserved its own post.

Google As Gatekeeper

As you probably know, Google is the dominant search engine on the web. What you may not know is that Google is also an amazing aggregator of information. Search terms, or in Google parlance “keywords”, are an important way we signal interest online. If we want to find, say, Thai food in Jacksonville, we search the keywords “Thai food” and “Jacksonville.” Similarly, if we want to learn about Aikido, we search “Aikido”. It’s helpful in this context to think of keywords as an electronic vote.

But Google does much more than just match content providers with users. It also stores this information, in a way that is, at least partially, accessible to us. The front end for this trove of data is called Google Trends. Go ahead, try it out. I’ll wait.

For our purposes, the significance of Google Trends is this: Over time, the popularity of a search query, such as “Aikido”, can be a useful barometer of public interest in that subject, or at least that portion of the public with the resources to search the web.

Aikido, Tae Kwon Do, and MMA

So, how does Aikido stack up? Let’s take a look. Although the view we have is fairly limited, the chart does show trends, and in our case, the trend is not pretty. But is this unique to Aikido? What about other martial arts, say Tae Kwon Do, or MMA?

First Tae Kwon Do. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tae Kwon Do, as a traditional martial art, is faring little better than Aikido. (Although its inclusion in the Olympics have resulted in some temporary, albeit impressive, spikes.)

MMA, or mixed martial arts, is a different story altogether. I can’t help but feel a twinge of envy as I look at that rising curve. Whether MMA remains popular, of course, is an open question.

Lastly, out of curiosity, I searched “Steven Seagal”. By my reading, it doesn’t appear that the decline in popularity of “Aikido” as a search query has any real correlation to the popularity of our favorite Aikidoka/actor/musician.

Now the disclaimer: I have no formal training in statistics and lack the background to perform any real analysis of these trends, (even assuming Google made available more granular data.)

Having said that, I do find that these trends back up my own anecdotal experience. Your thoughts?

Jerry Akel
Dojo: Aikido Center of Jacksonville
Weblog: Learning To Be Silent


  • It’s straight marketing really. How can any of us compete with MMA on prime time cable on a nightly basis? It’s a shift in the “culture” which is taking place. Our young men want to “fight”. They are not typically interested in the cerebral components of training in a martial art. Maybe this is the result in the demographic shift away from the older “Boomer” generation which grew up with the Vietnam war and the wholesale introduction of Eastern ideas into our culture. But whatever it is, our young men have a different set of concerns than we did.

    Now it’s the “Man Show,” unthinkable in my youth. It’s gladiatorial spectacle as much as anything we saw in Rome, except that it beams right in to our living rooms in high def. Does anyone think that a nightly dose of young fighters beating each other to a bloody pulp will create any interest at all in more traditional arts? Quite the opposite.

    So, if you have a dojo, you need to wake up to the reality that the demographic is changing fast. Aikido will continue to have an increasing proportion of women and young people. Mixed martial arts is for young men. Five to ten years of participation on a serious level will end with enough injuries that continuation will be impossible. Women who want to do martial arts simply do not go for MMA in any significant numbers. Nor do most sensible parents wish to have their kids punching each other in the head. So where do they go? It’s going to be Aikido.

    It is not my understanding that the demographic on martial arts training has changed… it’s still about 1% of the population that has any interest in training. But with the young men opting towards MMA and BJJ, that leaves women, children, and older men.

    I can see this in my own dojo. The average age is older. Most of my students are married professionals with families. Typically they have a high education level. When I opened my dojo twenty years ago, the ratio of adults to children was about 60% adults to 40% kids. Now it is just about 50 / 50. My ratio of men to women hasn’t changed significantly. But my location is fairly unique. The Seattle area has about twenty dojos in the immediate metro area. I would estimate that over half of them are run by women. So a woman looking to train has the ability to pick a female instructor and most do so. Of my three best female friends running dojos in the area, each of them has more students than I do. They have been able to grow their dojos while I have not.

    So the folks out there running dojos need to read the writing on the wall. As Bob Dylan once said “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…” If you don’t have a dojo that creates a supportive atmosphere for women to train, if you are not producing strong female instructors who can act as roles models, if you “don’t do kids,” you are going to have an increasingly difficult time keeping the doors open.

    It’s going to change the art. If your male students are increasingly older, you not going to be able to do the kind of hard physical training that we did as young students. You art going to have to “teach” your young men how to train with women. Women constantly complain that men don’t want to train with them. Well, why is that? Because young men often can’t figure out how to train with women with positive results. If they train the way they train with the other “boys” they get in trouble for being too rough. If they “train down” to their female partners, they are perceived as being arrogant and condescending. So it’s easier to just train with the boys.

    If your male students can’t figure this out, your dojo will not be a hospital place to bring female students along. They will train elsewhere, or not train.

    It is essential for good dojo financial health to have a kids program. Essential. If you don’t do kids, you need to find someone who does. If you have to pay an instructor to handle the kids program, do it. That’s what we do at our school. It’s crucial that you have an instructor that is both good with kids and is comfortable communicating with the Moms who are the ones who both find the schools where their kids train but transport them to calls each day.

    We actually have a separate domain name for our kids program with a completely different website. Aikidoforchildren.com is our domain. The website is specifically designed to be user friendly for folks who know nothing about the martial arts. The colors are designed to be more aesthetically pleasing rather than “hard core.” It may be Dad who thinks junior should do martial arts but it is Mom who typically finds the dojo and transports the children. We run ads that are specifically targeted towards the kids program and others that target the adult program.

    If you are stuck with a “traditional” idea about how training should be, that it needs to be what you did when you started thirty years ago, you will find it increasingly hard to keep the doors open. The reality is that you will have over thirty males, females, and young people as the target market. If you are a male instructor with a dojo and the training is based on what you did when you were twenty-two, you are targeting precisely that group that doesn’t wish to do what you do. Not a good business plan. Once again, Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changin'”.

  • Traditional martial arts have always fared badly when compared with instant gratification. For a while they did well because, compared to wrestling and boxing they appeared to offer instant results (and boxing did better than wrestling for the same reason…). But, I’ll bet that MMA has a lot more viewers than participants. That might be a trickier google. Our local UFC gym appears to be downsizing, but the number of UFC Gym locations is no doubt searchable…

    What’s amazing is that shooting isn’t particularly easy either, but the appearance of easy victory gives it attraction. And yes, shooting does trump hand-to-hand, if the distance exceeds five feet or so. It’s still amazing how easy it is to miss, and how inner focus is important to hit consistently (unbendable arm also helps).

  • It is very easy to make a comment on a martial arts like aikido that it doesn’t work in real fight.
    Does a real fight mean the fight happen inside rings with its regulations or real, real street fights and similar occasions reflecting real life situations?
    What disappoints me is that while MMA may try to take out the very essence, strong points of every martial arts, in fact, that is impossible to grasp the knack and depth of every arts just by dabbling around.

  • @George S Ledyard:

    you have so many misconceptions in the first half of your post… let’s see:

    “Our young men want to “fight”. They are not typically interested in the cerebral components of training in a martial art”

    Well, that’s a gross (and inaccurate) generalization of MMA fans. First, ANY young male in ANY culture “wants to fight” or is drawn to fighting and displays of strength.It is universal and stems from the genetics of the human race and millions of years of conflicts to survive. In any culture there’s a ritual of fighting whether it’s some sort of ritual wrestling, schoolyard scrapes or MAs. Is our (i.e Western, modern) society more violent than it was? I don’t know. We’re surely less naive.

    Second, martial arts were created for fighting, not for “cerebral” exercise, plain and simple. So, in a sense people who train BJJ and MMA are more traditionalist than you – people of old were more interested in staying alive on the battlefield (their “str33t”) than going through some old kata that has nothing to do with martial skills.
    I myself, and many other people, see very little value in martial arts just for the sake of spiritual growth. As a side effect – yes, but certainly not the main focus.

    Note that I did not say we shouldn’t use our brains when training MAs (we should always use our brains 🙂 but the practice of MAs for many people is more about the “martial” and rightfully so. Also, I don’t think there’s less cerebral component in BJJ or boxing than in Aikido. I should know, I trained in Aikido for two years in the past and now do BJJ exclusively. BJJ is a VERY sophisticated art, much more than Aikido IMHO, but to be frank, doing a graduate degree in mathematics is an order of magnitude more cerebral than both…

    I’m 32yo – am I a young man by your definition? I have a steady job, a wife and I do plan to have kids. I wasn’t involved in physical altercation since childhood nor do I plan to yet I am interested in LEARNING how to fight and Aikido is not my pick. I know many people like me including ones who participate in amateur MMA fights, none of them has a record of violence.
    I do enjoy watching MMA bouts occasionally which brings us to the next subject…

    “It’s gladiatorial spectacle as much as anything we saw in Rome”

    No, it’s not. Yes, there are similarities (“two people fighting in a ring”) but Oh, the differences…
    The gladiators in Rome were slaves who were forced to fight usually till death. They had no rights, they received little payment and I guess the medical care was…hmm.. sub standard.
    Contrast that to two free civilians, trained athletes who agreed on the rules, receive payment for their participation, have a referee to stop the fight to avoid permanent injury and have access to medical care.
    What about the Olympics? is it a gladiatorial spectacle or just the martial sports? what about Olympic TKD? what about Judo? what about boxing (with worse track record when it comes to it’s practitioner’s health)?

    “Does anyone think that a nightly dose of young fighters beating each other to a bloody pulp”

    Please…have you ever watched a single modern MMA bout? I assure I have worst sightings just watching the national news every evening. MMA is a sport.

    “Mixed martial arts is for young men”.

    Correction: participating in professional MMA fights is for young men.
    (interestingly, as a sport, MMA has surprisingly high percentage of “older” (read: above 30) athletes who are world class and do very well. Randy Couture and lately Herschel Walker are notable for that)
    – anyone can participate in the training and enjoy rolling around even if in less intensity. I will also add that in the real world empty hand combat IS for younger man, that’s just the reality of getting old, weaker and more susceptible to injury. Contrary to what you in movies and eastern myths there’s no empty hand martial art that will make you able to defeat highly-skilled-strong-30-years-younger opponents. That’s why they invented weapons.

    “Five to ten years of participation on a serious level will end with enough injuries that continuation will be impossible”

    Like in _any_ professional sport. In this regard MMA is no different than Tennis, sprinting, weight lifting, swimming or football.

    “Women who want to do martial arts simply do not go for MMA in any significant numbers”

    Women were never drawn in large numbers to the martial arts even before the explosion of modern MMA.

    In conclusion:
    The way I see it, for a long time most martial arts suffered from watering down because they were of little use in the modern battlefield. This led to some idolized and romantic views of what martial arts should be and practiced and together with emerging new-age (even before this term was used) beliefs blended with eastern mysticism led to the state of martial arts before the rise of modern mma as a sport. As long as we have weapons empty hand fighting will always be a niche so people who want to be martial effective will flock to MMA and people who want something else will flock to Aikido. The only thing that the MMA competition did was to end the fantasies about fighting.