Interview with Aikido Shihan Bill Witt: Aikido’s Decline in the United States

Bill Witt Sensei began training in aikido in 1967, under Ueshiba Morihei – O-Sensei – at Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. After O-Sensei passed away in 1969, Witt Sensei began training under Saito Morihiro Sensei in Iwama, Japan. He cofounded the Takemusu Aikido Association in 2002, based in California, and currently has been teaching at Aikido of Silicon Valley since 1998. Witt Sensei took some time to talk to Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow over the summer of 2019 to discuss membership decline, Mixed Martial Arts, and training a new generation of instructors, among other issues facing aikido today.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Hello Witt Sensei! We are glad to have you here and thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!

Bill Witt: Thank you for having me. I look forward to your questions.

MAYTT: Sensei, when did you first open your dojo and what did you do to acquire new students?

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Bill Witt Sensei in his Aikido Silicon Valley. Source: Aikido Silicon Valley

BW: Our dojo, Aikido Silicon Valley, was begun in 1998 with three students. Two of the students were actually the couple who started the dojo, and they were old students of mine from a former dojo in San Francisco. I taught classes there three times a week. Several methods were tried to gain exposure, newspaper inserts for example, but the web was coming into its own and in Silicon Valley everyone used the web. Our students reached us in this manner.  Our web site and social media are now our best sources of students. We keep up the website and are on social media. We get quite good traffic inquiring about the dojo from these two sources. We have also had a number of students enter who have trained in other dojo both in the U.S. and abroad. New students, however, generally hear about us through our website.

MAYTT: That’s keeping up with the times! [Laughs] From the methods you have described, what has been the dominant age demographic of those who have trained at your dojo and what has been the least throughout your school’s lifetime?

BW: We currently have about seventy students. Their ages range from eight to seventy-eight years. We have separate children’s classes with ages from eight to twelve years. Usually the older students integrate into the adult class. Our largest age cohort is in the twenty-six to forty-five year range.

MAYTT: Interesting. When did your dojo see its greatest membership growth and was there a particular time or year that correlated with the growth?

BW: The first three years showed growth up to about thirty students. We experienced some drop in 2001 with the local tech implosion and recovered growing to about seventy students. 2010 was a down year and enrollment was down a bit until 2016. We currently stand at about sixty adults and ten children.

In another example, my former dojo in San Francisco began life in late 1973. We were a partnership of four aikidoka. When we opened, we had twenty-two students. By the end of the first month we had over thirty more.

MAYTT: Why do you think that was a significant point for growth?

BW: Why? It wasn’t because of the senseis’ fame or training backgrounds. We opened just after Bruce Lee’s first film debuted.  It was a heady time. We maxed out at about 130 active adult students within two years. Due to location, we never were able to develop an active children’s class.

MAYTT: Amazing how films and popular culture can help develop a trend, promoting growth in certain types of businesses such as a school and bringing in new students! With anything, that which we do today becomes the foundation for what is to be tomorrow. Aikido instructors are a key essential for both the growth and the longevity of the art. How does Aikido Silicon Valley develop its new/future instructors?

BW: Aikido Silicon Valley is a member of the Takemusu Aikido Association (TAA) which is a recognized by Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. This means we have agreed to certain standards of training for students and new/future instructors. The TAA has developed an instructor training program for its members.

MAYTT: To follow up on that question, Sensei: in your opinion, what separates a good instructor from a great instructor?

BW: An instructor needs a good teacher and needs to establish a long-term relationship with him, in order to develop a strong set of basics and to advance not only to a superior skill level but to also understand the more esoteric aspects of aikido. To be an aikido instructor means seriously devoting a good part of one’s life to training and teaching. To be a good aikido instructor physical skill is important and the commitment to teach what the student needs to know and not necessarily what the teacher knows.

A great instructor inspires students not only to train hard but structures training so the student can understand and appreciate the relationships between techniques both with and without weapons. Saito Morihiro Sensei was such an instructor and is my paragon of a great instructor.

MAYTT: The late Stanley Pranin as well as Josh Gold have both suggested, in Aikido Journal, that aikido needs instructors who can teach the art well and can offer insightful development and innovation to the art. One method they proposed to achieve this is developing the instructor with in-house/dojo programs to discuss and implement teaching methodologies and strategies. Do you feel that this in-house development method is the way to go or does this need to be done on a larger scale, possibly through organizations?

BW: Stan Pranin was an old friend of mine. I introduced him to Saito Sensei.  In my beginning training at Hombu Dojo, O-Sensei would teach frequently, and I trained with him. Saito Sensei always felt he was passing on O-Sensei’s teachings and training methods. When I trained at the Ibaraki Dojo [in Iwama] in 1973, Saito Sensei made a decision to teach in such a manner to develop instructors. His method was not only teaching traditional techniques, but teaching them in a logical manner. Also, after every evening class he would talk about aikido, his experiences with O-Sensei, the future of aikido, and our responsibilities as future instructors. He would also throw in a good deal of aikido and martial arts history as well. All of this happened while drinking quantities of beer, and other alcoholic beverages. This, in my opinion, is where camaraderie is developed with fellow students and creates social cohesion. Other Japanese dojo do this as well—not all, of course. This social aspect of aikido is missing in most American schools probably because it takes time, but it is important because it gives the student a chance to raise questions of concern.

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Witt Sensei demonstrating a kotegaeshi. Source: Aikido Silicon Valley

The other method for possible instructors to gain experience is through an uchideshi program—in other words a live-in apprentice program. Most dojo don’t have room to support such a program. The apprentice system is still used in Japan and lasts ten years.  If you look at the Hombu Dojo rank structure, the interval from entry into the dojo until yondan is ten years.  It is no coincidence that examinations are required for all ranks up until yondan, and all promotions thereafter are based on what larger efforts one contributes to the aikido world.

In my opinion, an organizational approach is better. While there is room for individual expression in aikido, people who strive to be an instructor should receive extra training according to standards of the organization.

The Takemusu Aikido Association has set up a program to train instructors. We use the Hombu Dojo technique matrix and hold seminars to rate people for Shidoin and Fukushidoin. A Shidoin title is reserved for dojo-cho and the Fukushidoin title is for assistant instructors in a particular dojo-cho’s dojo. While this program has run for several years now, we are evaluating our efforts and are making changes.

MAYTT: That is an interesting perspective on training the new generation of aikido instructors, Sensei. French aikidoka Christian Tissier also suggests to allow younger instructors to teach classes more often in an effort to attract and draw more of the much-needed younger demographics into the dojo. In your opinion, is such a concept a valid method of addressing the age demographic issue facing aikido today? What other options might you suggest or have you tried?

BW: In our dojo, and some others I am aware of, having younger instructors actually teach classes is perhaps not in the student’s best interests. An instructor needs to be aware on many levels of what is going on in class, as well as having a clear training structure for the class. Also new instructors tend to verbalize a lot, in my experience, which cuts down training time.

MAYTT: I see. Has your dojo been affected by the current years’ decline of new membership that Aikido Journal along with other martial arts writers have claimed in recent articles that has now plagued the art? Have you had similar experiences with membership or has things been blown out of proportion and it’s more of a case by case perception of the situation?

BW: I have taught since 1969 as a brand new nidan.  I have seen aikido interest wax and wane.  We had boom times in 1973/4 with the Bruce Lee movies. Later Steven Seagal came along which produced another minor tsunami of students. In Silicon Valley, 2001 was a bad year with many tech companies failing. 2012 was not a good year, since the nation was going into recession.  Aikido, after all, is a leisure time activity for most people. If times are hard, like the gas crisis in 1974 people cut back on expenses, and aikido becomes a luxury one perhaps can’t afford.

California, in particular (I know, since I live here), has another variable which intersects with training. There are many leisure time activities competing for a person’s free time. Aikido is just one more.  I have had students who quit training in the winter to go skiing, for instance.

MAYTT: Those same writers also contend that the eighteen to twenty-nine age group/demographic is almost vacant in aikido schools across America. What do you think is contributing to the decline and can these traditional martial arts not only survive, but thrive without such specific age demographics?

BW: I have always thought aikido demanded a person’s intellectual attention. Most of our students are college graduates. The eighteen to twenty-nine age cohort are in school and generally busy and short of discretionary income. We have had members of the youth class train with adults in high school, get shodan, and leave for college. Some continue training but most don’t. We have had students return after college.

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Source: The Aikido Orlando Dojo

A traditional martial art like aikido will survive. What is interesting is most dojo are in urban areas. Lately I have met people who train in smaller towns and those schools seem to do O.K. too.  Aikido began in the United States in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Boston. It has since spread to places like Santa Fe, Bismarck, N.D. and other places in the center of the country.  Some of those small clubs/schools are small but with enthusiastic people. Overall, dojo growth may slow for a while, but it is my personal preference to plan for a small dojo. That way, it will always be full!

MAYTT: You seem to have a positive outlook on the future of aikido. That is refreshing to hear! Speaking of the ebbs and flows of the art over the years, how have you and your dojo adapted and weathered to such changes?

BW: We just take people as they come.  For some time, for example, we had a large population of women in the dojo. Life interfered — marriage, pregnancies — and that population dwindled. We had a mostly male dojo for a number of years. Now women seem to be coming back again. I guess the main thing is to have a dojo lead by a skilled instructor who is able to attract interested people to train.

MAYTT: Sometimes letting things take its course is the best path. From your experience, can aikido adapt to the changing modern martial arts landscape and the American industry model? Do you think there are ways for schools to maintain tradition and integrity while staying current with the times? Is there a need for traditional schools to bend just a enough to present themselves as a contemporary activity choice?

BW: I am a traditionalist in my aikido thinking. I inherited that from Saito Sensei. I feel there is an attraction to learning a martial art in a dojo that values tradition and values the culture from which it came. Other arts from Japan which have appeared in the U.S. like Ikebana (which, by the way, have traditional and modern schools existing together), tea ceremony, etc. seem to be doing O.K.

One must ask why the question of a slow decline in aikido enrollment is being given such thought? Tissier Sensei wants to let younger students teach classes. He should try it and see the results. However, his students will fare much better in his classes than those of a less experienced teacher. The objective of a dojo is to provide quality training and an incentive to continue training.

I have a friend, for example, who teaches aikido locally. He is Japanese and I met him in Tokyo. We both began aikido within a week of each other. I once happened to go to a Japanese cultural event, and he was there with his students to give an aikido demonstration. Apparently, after living over forty-five years in the U.S., he is modest about his English abilities when speaking in front of a crowd. He had one of his junior yudansha take questions from the audience. This young man was not able to make succinct, knowledgeable replies to the questions presented. Trying to teach or explain aikido when one is not sure of what one is talking about is not a good scenario.

There are two types of schools: Those with part time instructors, and those with full time instructors. I have done both. I prefer part time involvement, because I have other interests (and when I was a mechanical engineer, I was able to better provide for my family). Our dojo operates six days a week. We have five part time instructors, including me. Our students are able to see how the instructor balances aikido with a profession which is no small thing. That is an application of aikido to life which is not explicitly taught. We are able to offer classes both mornings and evenings. Our instructors are all skilled and range in rank from sandan to godan. I am hachidan and am now in my fifty-second year of aikido. It has been a great journey.

Saito Sensei told me once that being a part time teacher was better than teaching full time. His rational was that a part time teacher, not depending on an aikido income, was better able to adhere to sincere aikido beliefs and teaching methods. A full-time instructor could possibly under certain conditions modify his own standards in order to retain students. In that case there would be two losers: The instructor who made the conscious compromises, and the students who received the watered-down instruction.

MAYTT: That’s a fascinating take on the role of the instructors in a dojo. It really puts the overall training experience before anything else! In comparison, how do you think judo and karate adapted to such climate changes with regards to membership? Many believe they have not experienced the same decline in recent years as aikido, given that the membership numbers of judo and karate have remained at least relatively consistent compared to those of aikido.

BW: Frankly, I don’t know anything about judo and karate or how they run their schools. I do know that karate schools usually have big children’s classes. They also use contracts to lock the parents in, even if the child has abandoned interest, which creates a compromised standard for the dojo and a watered-down system or instruction.

One of my aikido friends in Texas shares space with a karate dojo where the sensei runs after school classes for children and offers work space for them to do homework as well. That seems to me to be a creative way to give value for the cost of children’s karate classes. Those classes, by the way, usually run about thirty students or so. This karate instructor is full time and by adding afternoon study at his schools provides incentive for parents to bring their children in without compromising training. It is an interesting approach.

MAYTT: Often times when discussed, many point to the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as two of the major factors to the massive changes within the martial arts industry over the last decade. Do you feel that these two arts are contributing factors to the decline of traditional martial arts?

BW: First of all, I take issues with your use of the term “industry” when referring to martial arts.  It makes our reasons to spread aikido too commercial. In a traditional sense martial arts, and from here on I will mean aikido, promotes development not only in martial skills but character as well.

I can understand, however, the popularity of MMA, for instance, since young men can get emotionally involved with watching MMA and want to get up off of the couch and try something. I realize there is a television persona the MMA practitioners develop, but, on TV anyway, they don’t demonstrate character to me. On the other hand, MMA practitioners seem to be in superb physical condition. I think young men who get inspired to train will have to do some serious conditioning in order to compete in MMA. Even if they only do it for practice, they will need some extra physical conditioning. The physical abuse they take when young will take a toll on their body which will come back in spades when they reach an advanced age. I have some experience in that.

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Witt Sensei about to perform randori. Source: Aikido of Silicon Valley

I have seen on YouTube, for instance, jujitsu/MMA/karate practitioners critiquing aikido saying it is not a practical fighting art. I disagree, but I understand their position. They are used to using strength and power in a match to overcome their opponent. They see aikido from the outside and their own perspective. They see aikido techniques as weak or not practical — in restraining holds, for instance. The reason we stop in a pin is to end the technique so our partner does not have to go to the hospital.

O-Sensei was very adamant about how dangerous training really is. He used to demonstrate a move after an ikkyo pin, for instance which would disable a person’s elbow. His point being that there is further restraint possible beyond the end of a typical training technique. He used to say one technique in aikido can kill. That is why we are careful in our training. O-Sensei also stated he didn’t start to really understand aikido, until he began to lose his strength.

Another huge difference between aikido and other grappling/throwing arts is that we do not have competitions — there are no medals or trophies to clutter up one’s walls. An aikidoka will have to be satisfied in their personal development. As an aside, I have heard a number of stories from students who have successfully used aikido in a confrontation. All of them, I might add, did not have mortal consequences.

Aikido training, on the other hand, is accessible to both sexes and all ages. Training may be difficult at first, because some physical dexterity will be required, but in time the trainee feels comfortable with the movements. Aikido training involves learning specific techniques. That is the first step in one’s development. The ultimate aim, in my opinion, is development of character using aikido philosophical principles.

From an experience of fifty-one years of being involved with aikido, I can tell you definitely aikido is a philosophy of life which combines both physical and mental components to develop an improved personal life. It is not just a fancy way of throwing people to the ground. First one develops a repertoire of techniques which are all interrelated, by the way. Continual training promotes a healthy body and a stable mind in the face of adversity. It changes the way one relates to others. In an argument, for instance, the calmer person may not necessarily prevail, but they will certainly lower the intensity of the situation.

The ability to act calmly and decisively in a stressful situation is a valuable personal characteristic. That is a subject for discussion at another time.

As a person develops in aikido, they are reminded, every time they put on a hakama, of the meaning of the five pleats:

Kindness

Correct Ethics

Manners

Knowledge

Faith or Belief

There is much, much more to aikido than the physical practice, and it is that aspect of the art which gives the highest confidence and satisfaction.

MAYTT: With aikido being centered around an idea of unity, how would you describe your dojo community and how does that community fit in to or even differ from the worldwide aikido community culture?

BW: By sharing a common experience — training — a dojo member connects with the dojo. By having inter-dojo training through our association, our dojo members connect with the larger community. Further we encourage students to travel to Japan to train, and that is an experience which usually has the person returning more enthusiastic than before to continue training. They get the experience of being welcomed into a dojo where they may not know the language and will find the training is similar to that in their home dojo.

I have taught seminars in various countries and find people who share their aikido training are friendly and interested in their visitors. Aikido community develops on a personal level and not on a top down model.

MAYTT: To shift the conversation to aikido curriculum, martial arts writer Nick Porter asserted that aikido’s curriculum has remained the same from its inception and has questioned why it’s remained stagnate compared to other martial arts. Essential saying that it has not changed with the times to reflect more of a modern-day approach and purpose with regards to self defense and practicality. In what ways do you feel that the overall curriculum of aikido could be updated for today’s modern era and martial arts industry?

BW: I don’t know Mr. Porter and have not read anything he has written.  I will assume he has significant budo experience.

With me aikido is only in its third generation. Although I trained under the Founder, I was just a white belt, a mudansha. Saito Sensei who was a personal student of the Founder for twenty-six years is second generation. Saito Sensei considered me the Founder’s grandson, i.e. third generation.  Aikido for me is still rather new, and it is not up to me to make any changes in curriculum.

Mr. Porter may feel that martial arts should evolve, and I think even O-Sensei would agree with him. However, the Founder and Saito Sensei have had such a profound influence on my life that I would not think of modifying anything. Saito Sensei, out of respect for the Founder, taught the techniques he was taught, but developed a method of teaching which I found to be very conducive to learning. Although we offer an introductory program which pairs the new student with a senior yudansha for about 6 classes. We have a basic curriculum which includes ukemi and several techniques. After that the student integrates with the main class.

Another thing to consider: O-Sensei maintained there were 3,600+ techniques in aikido. I have no idea how he came up with that number, and unfortunately, I never asked Saito Sensei. My repertoire is only about 250 to 300, I am guessing. If the Founder is correct there are a lot more techniques for me to discover. Even if I live to 100, like my parents, I probably won’t be able to discover them all. That may be not necessary though. What is necessary is for the individual to progress through the stages of aikido training to arrive at the fourth: Takemusu Aiki.

Also, kobudo, old styles of martial arts still exist in Japan. Perhaps there are few practitioners, but their interest is enough to keep the art alive. They don’t feel a need to modify or modernize. They revere tradition which is not necessarily a bad thing.

MATYY: Final question, Sensei, based on your years of experience in both training and teaching, what advice would you give to someone who is looking to open an aikido dojo today?

BW: If you want to make a small fortune in aikido, start with a big one.

Seriously, start teaching in your home dojo with a children’s class. While I began teaching at nidan (I was thirty-three), I recommend starting a dojo with a rank of yondan which means at least ten years hard training in a dojo first. I also believe teaching as a primary sensei in a dojo one should be at least thirty years old.

Again, anyone opening a dojo must decide whether to teach part time or full time. If the aim is to become a full-time instructor, develop a solid business plan first. I have a friend who wanted to go full time. He had a small inheritance, opened a dojo in a small shopping center in a bedroom community to San Francisco and closed it within 9 months, without attracting students. He had enthusiasm but no plan.

Personally, I taught professionally for five years. I was single then. When I married and had a child on the way, I made the decision to go back to my profession. I didn’t see a future in teaching aikido full time and supporting a family above the poverty level. Besides I enjoyed being a mechanical engineer. In short, I remained active in aikido, trained over a 10-year period with yearly visits to my teacher, and kept involved in the aikido community. Saito Sensei taught part time until he retired from the railroad. I have never felt teaching part-time was a hindrance in my personal development.

MAYTT: Thank you again Sensei for an interesting and in-depth interview! We appreciate your time.

BW: Thank you for the experience!

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

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