Aikido’s popularity may be in decline, according to Josh Gold’s research at Aikido Journal, but is it really in crisis? He says: ‘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.‘
Only a small minority of people have more than a cursory interest in taking up a martial art, and Aikido is one option among many. Aikido isn’t a brand or a ‘household name’, we could say, that has a presence in the mainstream. Still, an 86% decline of interest between 2004 and last year should raise questions.
The trends for just one search term doesn’t tell us much about the situation, though. We’re pretty well-known in the Rhondda valleys, and often people join because they’ve heard about us from friends, and friends of friends. Evidently some organisations are doing better than others. The statistics might also have been significantly offset by people using ‘aikido + [location]‘ as a search term, instead of just ‘aikido‘.
Still, far more people were (and are) interested in MMA, which I expected:
This looks pretty damning, no? Well, it’s actually not as damning of Aikido, per se, as it first appears. If you compare the trends for ‘martial arts’ and ‘aikido’, both appear to be on the same trajectory, and changing the date range seems to confirm this. So, I could argue that interest in the traditional martial arts in general is in decline.
I decided to look at the trends for ‘aikido’ and ‘sports club’, and the graph is interesting.
Here we have something of a correlation between the interest in sports clubs and interest in Aikido, though the trend for the former is more gradual.
So, the good news is that the problem doesn’t appear intrinsic to Aikido. The bad news is the trends suggest a declining popularity of traditional martial arts and perhaps fewer people engaging in physical activities socially. Aikido is a casualty of this.
When you ignore the comments dealing with the political issues within Aikido, there’s the general sentiment that the underlying problem is societal, and I’m inclined to agree. We live in an individualistic society without ideals, direction or positive role models, and we’re collectively driven by the need for instant gratification. I think the lack of role models in particular is a major problem, especially for young men.
Modern culture has again turned to pagan deities, in the form of superheroes who don’t have any real character development that anyone could emulate. This is important, because movies were a major gateway to the martial arts in the 80s and 90s, and it was implicit, either through the storyline or the actors’ histories, that human legends were made through years of hard practice. Just about anyone could become like Stalone, Norris, Seagal, Lundgren, van Damme, etc. if they really tried.
Yet I don’t think there’ll be a consensus on what the underlying problem is, or even whether it’s a problem to be solved, as was pointed out in the comments:
‘I do miss those root causes which are only hinted at (“many factors”). Yet, a few lines further down a solution is suggested and it involves Aikido Journal taking the lead. While I appreciate the enthusiasm and engagement this seems a bit premature and I am not sure whether Aikido Journal or its community is even the right tool / audience to resurrect interest in the Art.‘
For what it’s worth, past experience has taught me a few things: Anyone seriously invested in a martial art needs a community that’s going to provide support, encouragement, knowledge and a channel to vent frustrations and share ideas. This is where Aikido Journal, AikiWeb, the Aikido subreddit and similar forums have an important role to play.
Secondly, the idea of being relevant to modern society should be approached with caution, lest it be confused with trying to be all things to all people. We must seek to adapt, but preserve the traditions, standards and principles that make Aikido worth practising.
Lastly, as Josh Gold quite rightly stresses, it’s important that everyone has the opportunity to play a role in their organisation or community. Even a junior grade can help in the teaching of a beginner, and anyone can be involved in the preservation of Aikido’s history and traditions or researching the history.
Something that’s always bothered me is how we (yes, myself included) introduce beginners to Aikido, but I haven’t found a way around this. There’s nothing worse than wondering why the hell you’re spending the first six months grabbing each others’ wrists and learning how to roll around on the floor. Especially given there’s more impressive stuff and self-defence techniques on YouTube you could learn instantly. We’re in the awkward situation of practising a very effective martial art, a martial art that has some real advantages when the self-defence applications eventually become apparent, but an art with a damn slow learning curve for most people. Again, I don’t know any shorter way of passing on the secret – you perform the techniques a hundred times before you get it right. As one commenter put it, ‘Most, if not all sensei, have internalised Aiki by osmosis‘.
On a related point, demonstrating and explaining the relevance of static techniques to self-defence is important. We should be explaining how one progresses from countering wrist grabs to countering right-hooks, straight punches and stabs, and how effectively things are done at advanced levels. There’s always an eagerness on my part to teach this. In truth, I don’t think junior an intermediate grades are doing enough Randori and improvisation to experience this for themselves.
A third point is made by Gold:
‘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 […]‘
While I agree that such instructors are an asset, we have to be realistic. Instructors who are able to pursue Aikido as a full-time profession are a tiny minority, if they exist at all here in Wales. But is that really such a problem? Currently Aikido already has something resembling a common syllabus, the standards are pretty high for being awarded the black belt, there are special classes for senior grades, and we have the opportunity to train several nights per week. And let’s not forget the Internet gives us access to historical material that the old-timers didn’t have.
When I take a look at our organisation’s membership, it seems pretty obvious that Dan grades (black belts, if you prefer) and the senior grade classes are the core of our organisation. You could say there are about twenty black belts and maybe seven junior grades (not counting the very young children). But I don’t see this as a bad thing. In fact, if the ratio was switched, I’d be worried. By this, I don’t mean the junior grades aren’t important, but rather, the coloured belt system is just the initial few steps of a decades-long journey.
Nobody here is awarded a senior grade without proving themselves, without developing self-discipline, perseverance, humility, mental strength and the resilience to overcome failure. And this process is physically and mentally tough. That’s probably why Aikido will always remain a minority thing.