Interview with Hiroshi Ikeda: Aikido’s Current State in the United States

Hiroshi Ikeda began his Aikido training in 1968 in Tokyo. He holds the rank of seventh dan and is founder and chief instructor of Boulder Aikikai, in Boulder Colorado. The following is a transcript of an interview in the summer of 2019. We had the chance to discuss the current state of aikido in the United States, aikido’s relationship to other martial arts, and what the future holds for aikido. All images provided by Hiroshi Ikeda. This interview previously appeared in Aikido Journal.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you, Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei, for taking the time to talk!

Hiroshi Ikeda: Thank you for having me.

MAYTT: There are numerous approaches to promoting the art of aikido that have been discussed and implemented over the years. Some work, but many seem to produce no real results. When you first opened your dojo, how did you acquire new students? What types of methods did you use and were they successful?

HI: Boulder Aikikai was established in August of 1980. At that time, the consumer internet did not exist. Recruitment of students consisted mainly of word of mouth, posters hung in supermarkets and restaurants and other places people frequented. Advertising in the phone book and Yellow Pages was also effective. These methods had the same effect in that era as internet searches do in modern times.

MAYTT: It has always been said that a dojo’s lifeblood is the membership. Based on your dojo’s past and current membership enrollment statistics, what were the age demographic and what groups do you feel are underrepresented?

HI: In the 1980s, there were many people in their 20s to 30s practicing and in the 1990s there were many people in their 30s and 40s. In the 2000s the number of people practicing aikido in their 20s had greatly decreased. Presently, the ratio of male-to-female students at my dojo is seven to three, with the majority being male. Most practitioners are Caucasian, along with people from Asian countries.

Hiroshi Ikeda teaching at the Aikijuku Dojo in June 2017.

MAYTT: Black Belt Magazine conducted a survey in the late 1970s and found that only a few thousand Americans practiced aikido. By the 1990s that number was believed to be in the tens of thousands. When did your dojo see its greatest membership growth? Was there a particular time or year? Why do you think that was a significant point for growth?

HI: I think that the twenty-year period from 1980 to 2000 was a time when many people practiced aikido. One of the reasons is that there were many martial arts movies and due to the influence of these movies, it was a time when young people and many other generations showed interest in the martial arts.

MAYTT: As students progress through the art, many are inspired to give back by teaching. How does your dojo develop its future instructors?

HI: Aikido instructors are, of course, people who need to have great presence. They must possess not only knowledge of fundamental technical basics, but also, in order for aikido to evolve and thrive, they must possess excellent movement skill and have interesting technique, much like the shihan of previous times. This is imperative for the instructors of the next era. To be an instructor who only teaches the form of techniques will result in a future aikido that has no meaning.

In our current time, the attitude toward training as well as the time committed to practice has changed from what uchideshi experienced in earlier times. It is difficult to bring up good instructors in the current environment. In my dojo we experience a lot of aikido, and through these experiences broaden the horizons of the students, where each of them can develop individually. From this sort of environment, we can expect that some good instructors will develop for the future.

For myself, I train always looking to the future, to develop myself, and then share the results with my students in training. If the student can develop even a little bit, I can hope that a future instructor will emerge.

MAYTT: That is an interesting take on the future development of aikido instructors. In your opinion, what separates a good instructor from a great instructor? Is it skill level or more of an ability to connect with the students whom they teach? Does personality outweigh skill in some regards?

HI: I think that presently there is a good variety of teachers. In the 1970s, when I was practicing at Aikido World Headquarters, there were many instructors who were students of O-Sensei. They were technically superior instructors, and during training would draw us into a story about aikido, things that would be further discussed at a coffee shop after class. There were shihan who spoke of various interesting things. The shihan were all different, but all of them studied very earnestly for many years under O-Sensei’s instruction. I think these instructors were the real thing, and also great mentors.

I think that those who train earnestly in this manner will become good instructors, and also have the potential to become great leaders.

Ikeda Sensei teaching at one of his many seminars in 2017.

MAYTT: French aikidoka Christian Tissier suggests allowing younger instructors to teach classes more often in an effort to attract and draw more of the much-needed younger demographics into the dojo – that eighteen to twenty-nine demographic. Do you feel this is a valid method of addressing the age demographic issue? What other options might you suggest or have you tried?

HI: Going forward, aikido must be built by young people. Even if you are a young instructor, it is a given that you must have technical and leadership skills. Aikido is not just for gathering people together. It has the important task of transmitting the spirit of O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba.

The future of aikido will change significantly, depending on whether a young instructor is a person who has trained a lot in aikido, or simply an instructor because he or she has acquired dan rank. It’s the wish for the future that, when the older people are no longer with us, the younger people will develop aikido, and from this, good instructors will emerge. What kind of young instructors appear, and how they share their technical ability and interesting aikido with the world will cause the future of aikido to change.

MAYTT: I see. Recently, Josh Gold, Executive Editor of Aikido Journal, along with a number of other martial arts writers claim that aikido has been on the decline since at least 2004, with a massive drop occurring around 2012. Has this been your experience and has your dojo been affected in any way?

HI: The change to the aikido population is seen in my dojo the same as it is all over. If the elderly are no longer around, and the young people no longer knock on the door of aikido, the consequence is that we cannot avoid a catastrophic situation for aikido.

MAYTT: Those same writers also contend that the eighteen to twenty-nine age group/demographic is almost nonexistent in aikido as well as other traditional martial arts dojo across America. What do you think is contributing to the decline and can these traditional martial arts survive without those specific age demographics? Are traditional martial arts in jeopardy?

HI: This situation is occurring not only in the United States but in the whole world, and there is no good solution. Additionally, whether this can be said to be the cause or not, as we enter the years from the 2000s, fewer and fewer martial arts movies are being released.

It may be said that the general public has less awareness of martial arts. Also there has been a change in movies and television shows that feature martial arts. Many young people are interested in seeing programs with martial arts competitions. The view of martial arts has changed and may be moving away from the dojo. Judo is an Olympic event and is popular in Europe, but in the United States it is difficult to find a judo dojo. Going forward, martial arts may not be able to keep from declining unless we think of them in a new way.

MAYTT: Changing how we think about martial arts may help save them from extinction, because, unfortunately, we are always faced with the inevitability of change, whether we like it or not. The world has changed dramatically in the last twenty-five years and martial arts have not been immune. How have you and your dojo adapted to such a change, if any?

HI: As it is a trend of the times, it is difficult to make this change. I think it is important to think about a new practice method that brings interest to the practice.

MAYTT: In your opinion, how can traditional martial arts, such as aikido, adapt to the changing modern martial arts landscape and the American industry model? Is there a way for schools to maintain tradition and integrity while staying with the times?

HI: There is tradition in martial arts, but people live in the present age where the times are changing and people’s way of thinking is changing. Keeping the tradition of the dojo depends on today’s people. If possible, I want to maintain the tradition and integrity of the traditional Japanese dojo without changing it.

MAYTT: Given that the membership numbers of judo and karate remain, at least, consistent compared to aikido, how do you think judo and karate adapted to such changes or why have they not experienced the same decline in recent years as aikido?

HI: One reason is that there are competitions in judo and karate. Aikido has no competition. I think that martial arts without competitions that were regarded as important in the past now have less perceived value. We are in an era where people are interested in competitive arts.

MAYTT: When martial artists, particularly dojo owners, discuss the changes within the industry, many point to the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as two of the major factors. Are MMA and BJJ really contributing factors to the decline of traditional martial arts, and if so, what do these arts offer in comparison to aikido and other Japanese martial arts like judo and karate?

HI: To put it concisely, Japan’s martial arts training is the piling up of many simple lessons. By watching competitions on television etc., a person has the advantage of seeing what is being done up close. One can imagine oneself standing in the ring. Perhaps this could be entering the realm of emptiness. In addition, it fascinates young people to watch. They enjoy it, regardless of whether they can do martial arts themselves or can endure the difficulty of training. They may enjoy watching because they can imagine doing something they never will.

Ikeda Sensei instructing an Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar in Turkey, 2018.

MAYTT: Besides competition, is there something that judo and karate offer that aikido does not, given that judo and karate seem not to be experiencing the same rapid rate of decline in interest and participation as aikido?

HI: Aikido, judo, karate, and all martial arts have the same purpose of development. Judo and karate have competitions, which fit with young people of today. Isn’t this a different world from the original intent of the spirit of martial arts? One objective for continuing to train in martial arts is to develop patience. With martial arts such as judo and karate, and other arts that have competitions, one develops patience when facing an opponent in a match, and with martial arts such as aikido, iaido, and kyudo, patience is developed as one struggles with oneself. Aikido provides patience that is produced by calmness, and martial arts with competitions develop patience that is produced by action.

MAYTT: I see. Aikido is centered around an idea of connection and unity; both on and off the mat. How would you describe your dojo community? Then in comparison and from your perception, in what ways does your dojo community culture align with the worldwide aikido community culture of unity? How does it differ?

HI: In all martial arts, “Musubi,” or connection, is essential, because without “Musubi,” you cannot control the other person. In aikido we hear the word “Musubi.” Without “Musubi,” aikido techniques cannot be executed. I believe we need to think more seriously about the word “Musubi” in aikido.

MAYTT: Based on your opinion, in what ways does the overall aikido community compare to other Japanese martial arts, given the same cultural origin? What would be some of the differences, if any?

HI: The fundamental purpose of studying martial arts is to develop oneself through training. This is common to tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, Zen, as well as other arts.

MAYTT: Martial arts writer Nick Porter asserted that aikido’s curriculum has remained the same from its inception and asked the question, “why aikido has not changed or modified its curriculum as time went on, especially in relation to more modern styles that have seen a rise in popularity and numbers?” Do you feel that the overall curriculum of aikido could be updated for today’s modern era? If so, in what ways this can be done without losing the art’s identity?

HI: The foundation of aikido was created by O- Sensei Ueshiba Morihei. This foundation cannot be changed. However, many students of O-Sensei Ueshiba Morihei used the foundation they learned from O-Sensei and have created a different form of aikido. I think we have seen these different forms with many of the shihan we know.

We cannot change the spirit and foundation of aikido, but the outside form of aikido is changing. By no means is aikido something that cannot change in any way. In the future, I hope that the new generation of people will develop interesting aikido, which many people will want, making use of the foundation of aikido created by O-Sensei.

MAYTT: Because aikido is as individual as the individual who trains, many instructors and dojo have implemented various concepts and training methods adopted and adapted from other styles and arts. Has your dojo’s curriculum made any additions or subtractions to stay current?

HI: Aikido technique is made up of basic movements, which cannot be changed. I think that if this basic movement is something that each person can freely manipulate, it will lead to each person developing their own aikido. To that end, we have to learn many new things, otherwise we become inflexible and rigid. In my dojo, students are aware of both the old form and new forms of aikido. The goal is for them to experience both and have personal growth as individuals.

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. With your extensive knowledge and experience as a dojo owner and aikidoka, what advice would you give to someone opening a dojo today?

HI: A dojo is not a place for entertainment, it is a place where one can train earnestly. A place that is loose is not a dojo, it has become just a place where people get together. It can be said that any place where Buddha trained was called a dojo.

MAYTT: Thank you, Sensei, for taking the time to partake in this interview.

HI: Thank you for allowing me to talk about these things.

To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.

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